Being self-employed on any level – whether it’s a creative pursuit or not – is often a “feast or famine” proposition…there are long periods of idle anxiety punctuated by frantic scrambles to accommodate everything that comes at you. I’ve had a friend for years who alternates between worrying whether he has enough work in the pipeline to pay his bills and not being able to answer the phone out of fear of distraction because there’s so much work to do.
I’ve almost always had a “day gig” of some sort to relieve those extremes in my own life, although it’s largely been an exercise in self-delusion…just because one has a regular job, it can often create a false sense of security. These days, though, it’s been a blessing – working for the company I work for has given me a lot of freedom to say no to things that I’d otherwise have to do in order to pay the bills.
But then there are months like this November, when it’s just plain hard to say no to the things that came my way.
I had agreed some time back to a show in St. Louis with the Poco next-of-kin, but in pretty short order I found myself with a Boneyard Hounds show the week after that in Philadelphia and was asked to fill a chair up front for one of the “Songwriters and Storytellers” series that I’ve participated in as a sideman in years past…so this year, I’d be participating in the rounds as well as doing my usual “utility” work when the others were playing. A lot of heavy lifting, but – I mean, I couldn’t say no to that…any more than I could say no to a Dan May show in Sandusky at the Maritime Museum on the 6th, before the real roadwork kicked in.
All of this meant a weekend trip to the Great Lakes region of Ohio, coming back to Nashville to work for part of a week before heading north for that run of four shows, then back to Nashville in time to leave for the St. Louis show with the band, then coming home in time to leave for Philadelphia again – but mileage has never been a deterrent for me. If you’ve been reading these missives for a while, you already know this.
Just the mileage associated with these runs would add up to a combined total of around 5200 miles.
Sandusky, Ohio is home to me in ways that I can’t really associate with places where I’ve actually lived.
And that’s all Dan May’s fault.
We came to the realization – during this particular show, in fact – that Dan and I have been collaborating for fifteen years. “Musical Years” are much like “Dog Years” in the sense that one of them counts for more than a typical 365 day unit of time in a lot of ways, and Dan has been one of a handful of folks that have made my life richer for having been a part of that particular collaboration…but with Dan, it goes a little deeper. Dan has adopted me and his family has taken me in as one of them, and – well, Dan has a large, extended family in both the accepted biological sense and the broader definition of the word.
I’m an honorary citizen of Sandusky, Ohio – as declared by Dan and – from what I can tell – the majority of the population of the city. And every time we go there, the relationship deepens somewhat…I could pack my car and drive to Sandusky tonight and there’d be a dozen places I could go, where I could knock on the door and be welcomed in.
I don’t think that’s true of my own hometown, really.
So these shows, when they present themselves, are pretty much a given for me. Playing with Dan is just a layer of the cake…getting to spend time with his extended circle is a fringe benefit that’s become truly special to me over the years.
I left home right out of high school and the disdain I had for the place accompanied me everywhere I went for many, many years. It never felt like home to me then, and even now it really just serves as a figurative storefront for a place that doesn’t really exist anymore – family has splintered and scattered to the four winds, and that’s probably the main reason I can go back now without a sense of uneasiness…the pins on the map I have in my memory have mostly fallen away after all these years, to the point where it’s largely just another town.
Sandusky doesn’t have the burden of carrying all my mental baggage from my formative years, though, and the town has been a blank slate for me to write my own stories – along with the help of this swath of humanity that’s adopted me.
Going back there is “a gig”, to be certain – but the “hang” is the attraction for me. And this show was no exception…a highlight, even.
Dan’s band of supporting musicians has taken on a new member over the past couple of years (and yeah, that sounds like a long time, until you consider the COVID sabbatical) – she came to us as a student of Anthony’s who’d graduated to an instructor role at the School of Rock. The first time Claudia and I played together was at Sellersville Theater back in 2019, and the connection was pretty much instantaneous – we started playing The Glory Years during soundcheck and she was playing my part as if it were me playing it, and a circuit developed within just a few seconds of that first song. I thought the first show was just a fluke, maybe – based on some of the other things in the air that particular night – but every time we’ve played together since, it’s been there…and I gotta admit, I struggle to describe it.
As a musician, most of us recognize these connections when they present themselves – it’s not a tangible thing that fits into a social construct (friend, family member, co-worker, spouse, et cetera) that most people recognize. I mean, anyone who can play three chords can pick up a guitar and play those three chords with anybody else who has the base ability to operate the instrument – but the thing that separates those two random “three chord” folks from the musicians that stand out to us are the people who transcend the mechanics of the process and connect on the next level. It’s playful and intimate and telepathic and satisfying on a level that’s – again, hard to describe. But Claude and I landed in that place almost instantly, and it’s been there every single time we’ve played together since, and I treasure that.
This show was just the three of us – Dan, Claudia and I – and the show was pretty great for three people who’d only played together twice, but the part that I’ll remember long after I’ve forgotten the details of the show was…well, everything that happened after the show.
We went back to Jerry’s house afterward, the guitars came out and we played until…shit, I don’t know what time it was, honestly. Pizza was ordered, nachos were served, and we passed guitars around and played and sang until literally everyone else had gone upstairs to bed except Claud, Kevin (Claud’s dad) and I. Kevin plays as well, and towards the end of the night someone had mentioned that a riff I played sounded like Leader Of The Band, so I played it and that opened the portal into the Dan Fogelberg Wormhole – and Kevin started playing the opening chords to The Last Nail and that sealed the deal. It was All Fogelberg, All The Time until everyone just ran out of gas.
After it was over, I got a text from Claud with a video attached of her dad and I playing The Last Nail from the night before, captioned: “my dads”.
I packed it in after everyone retired for the night and drove over to the Opfers’ house (I’ve been Team Eddie for some years now, and that’s my home base whenever we’re there) and – predictably – they were long asleep, but I got a nice long breakfast hang with them when I woke up the next morning. They’d been at Jerry’s the night before for the jam session, along with all the usual suspects, but the hang at the breakfast bar with Eddie and Julie – the quiet time to connect – is really priceless to me.
After a stop along the interstate to take photos of Kentucky Speedway to text back to Danny, it was back to Nashville for a minute before taking off for the Northeast.
I was looking forward to the drive, having gotten a taste of the beginnings of the descent of autumn along the interstate driving south from Ohio.
I realized, though – after only a few miles on the trip north that this musical pilgrimage had fallen at a nearly perfect point in the trajectory of autumn for this year – the Sandusky run was a warmup, but the mountain ranges in southwest Virginia were particularly colorful on the trip northward, and I left early enough in the morning to burn off most of the pre-dawn hours traversing The Nothing (the stretch of I-40 between Nashville and Knoxville that Jayda nicknamed for the void that swallows up everything in “The Never Ending Story”) and I watched the sun come up through the windshield just as I was leaning into the northward stretch of I-81 towards Bristol. I couldn’t have timed it more perfectly if I’d actually made an effort to line it all up.
The first show was in Bridgeville, Delaware and my phone took me across 66 and through Washington DC, across to the stretch of route 50 that crosses from Annapolis into Delaware just as the sun was dipping towards the horizon – seriously, I couldn’t have planned the timing of this trip more perfectly if I’d tried. I got to the venue and hauled my gear in for the first show and crossed my fingers.
I’ve done a bunch of these shows by just plugging the mandolin (or whatever other acoustic instruments I might have along for a particular show) into the same signal path I use for electric stuff – for quieter shows, I’ve managed to get away with it for a long time. But after that disaster of a show in Wisconsin a while back, I made up my mind to start taking that signal path more seriously – so I bit the bullet and started putting together a pedalboard for the acoustic instruments (banjo, dobro, mandolin, and such) and got a separate amplifier to run those instruments through. Since I’d be playing acoustic guitar during my turns in the round, that’d be a factor as well, so – I brought ALL OF IT for this trip. It made for a long load-in and load-out, but the truth is – it made everything easier during the show. I had discrete signal paths for each instrument, all run off a true-bypass loop pedal – a ToneBone PZ-Pre for acoustic guitar and mandolin, a FIshman Jerry Douglas Aura for the dobro, with delay and tremolo thrown in for good measure. I’d bought a Boss EQ that I was going to add for banjo, but it was so noisy that I bailed on it. It made my whole rig sound like it was next door to the airport – I’d assumed that Boss gear was solid enough not to have to worry about that sort of thing, but…well, lesson learned. I wasn’t really using banjo for this run, so it wouldn’t be an insurmountable issue for these shows.
For the shows, I had a volume pedal in front of me for each pedalboard – those being the only things I really needed real-time access to…I’ve never really been a tap-dancer, I usually set the signal path before the song and run with it…both volume pedals fed their respective pedalboards and amps, pedalboards off to the side and amps well behind the stage. I’d select the proper path for whatever instrument I was using and roll with it, and it was as close to painless as could really be possible for this array of stuff. AND – the acoustic instruments sounded pretty great. No feedback issues, the tremolo actually sounded great on both the dobro and the acoustic guitar when I saw fit to use it, and changing out was as simple as unplugging, replugging, and stepping on a button or two. The only way it could’ve been easier would have been to have brought a tech along…it’s about as manageable as it gets for one guy.
As material went, I did the usual thing and didn’t really bother to rehearse or re-learn anything…I had a few songs that I knew I’d want to do, but I wanted to just react to what was happening on the stage with the other performers and I didn’t want to lock myself into anything where material was concerned – I did listen to a couple of my older songs on the drive up, just to refresh my memory and brush up on lyrics, but that was pretty much the extent of my preparation. I knew I wouldn’t need a ton of material to begin with – the most I’d have to do would likely be six songs if we did two rounds of three songs each, and I could play six songs in my sleep. I knew I’d end up doing two Poco-centric songs for sure, both “Crazy Love” and “Where Did The Time Go” would be in the bag – but I gave myself plenty of rope outside those two.
I did a couple of songs from “Our Mutual Angels” over the course of the run – Brand New Distance and Is That Enough – just because they popped into my head at specific times. But I also did Craig Bickhardt’s Giant Steps and Craig Fuller’s Sure Do Miss You Now from the Friends and Heroes collection…I did Tom Petty’s Southern Accents one night, as well. Nik Everett surprised me by showing up for the second night of the run, so I pulled out Uncle Tom’s Cafe for that show, and I did Bitter And The Sweet for another – but those were the only new-ish songs I bothered to do…since none of that stuff was available at the merch table yet.
Seeing Nik was a welcome sight – we both tried a hand at doing the math, and neither of us could remember having seen one another since before I moved to Nashville in 2014…and that it might have actually been at one of the Bob Dylan Birthday Bash shows at Rembrandt’s back in the day…which would easily be ten years. Nik was the last person I saw before I drove away from the Smyrna Opera House that night on my way back to Sol Knopf’s house, where I stayed the first two nights (as did Jesse Terry and his family).
I’ve known Sol for years, but in all that time I’d never had an opportunity to spend any real time with him, other than at shows – but we got a chance to connect during this trip that we hadn’t really had before. A couple of great post-show hangs with long conversations, including the story of the night he met his wife and how her father factored into it…I won’t tell it here because I likely won’t do it justice, but…it’s a great story.
Sol connected me with a writer for an interview not long before I made the trip, and he used nearly everything from our conversation – which was surprising, because usually it’s a matter of bits and pieces – but we’d talked specifically about Sol during our conversation, and I made some unsolicited observations about him that I thought were just part of the banter, but that he ended up using in the article. I told him that one of the things I always admired about Sol was how evident his love for his home state was in his work, how it was clearly part of his identity, and the only other songwriter I could really think of who’d managed to pull off having that same sense of place in their work was Springsteen – that to me, Sol was just as synonymous with Delaware as the Boss was to New Jersey. Not in a heavy-handed, Jimmy Buffett fashion…but with a modicum of actual grace.
And honestly, after spending some actual daylight driving around the state a bit that weekend…I get it.
If you’ve spent any time there, you get it as well…you don’t need me to tell you.
Three of the four shows were in Delaware, save for a show in suburban Philadelphia that had JD Malone subbing for Sol (he had a previous show on the schedule) – Claudia came to the show and she and I went out for dinner with JD and Tommy after the show before I headed over the bridge to spend the night at Casa Del Tearson before the last show of the run the next night. Cindy Pierson (widow of legendary soundman George) and Carolyn Miller came over the next morning with breakfast for a nice hang before I left for the final show.
After we wrapped up the final show of the run, I went back to Sol’s in Smyrna and we stayed up with the family and had pizza before bed.
I got up the next morning at a much earlier hour than I’d normally get up and set out on a slightly different route home. I decided that, since I was already so far south, I’d deviate from the typical Interstate path home…I was going to follow route 13 all the way south through Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia – across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and into Norfolk and across Virginia to connect with I-81 around Wytheville and home from there. It was several hours longer than the typical drive home, but I had hoped it’d be worth it…and it was, largely – although I found myself wishing I’d done it during the summer when the days were longer and I had the extra daylight.
I got home in time to dump my gear from the northeast run and re-tool for the acoustic Poco gig in St. Louis and leave some 36 hours later – Jack, Rick and I had decided to rent a minivan for the run and drive up and back together.
The first thing I noticed when I got to Rick’s house to load up was that our rental van had Colorado plates.
I see you, boss. I see you.
This set was essentially a reprise of the set we’d played at Wildwood a month earlier – a short set of Poco songs for a lifelong fan who was retiring from his position as director of the St. Louis Zoo. He turned out to be a wonderful guy. It was also convenient, in that there was a seller just outside St. Louis who’d listed a Source Audio programmable EQ pedal that I’d been looking for – to use on my acoustic pedalboard and he was nice enough to drop it off at the hotel for me. I got in a nice walk through Clayton in suburban St. Louis (I could see the arch from my hotel window) and Mary (Rusty’s wife) and I closed the bar the night before we left to return home to Nashville.
Another down day at home before reloading the car to head back to Philadelphia for a show with Michael Braunfeld and the Boneyard Hounds – our first post-COVID show as a band. It was a loud affair, to be certain, and there was a pretty stubborn layer of rust to shake off, but that’s a journey that begins with a single step, and we definitely took it that night. There was a great crew of friends who came out to the show to support the band, and we did our best to make it worth their while.
Another night at Casa Del Tearson after a nighttime drive through Philadelphia to reacquaint myself with the skyline…and left the next day to cross the river and do a little shopping for the family before returning to Nashville. I picked up some V&S fries, some Hippies’ ring bologna, some Chicken Pot Pie and some block swiss cheese (which appears to have gone extinct here in Nashville for some reason) to bring back to the kids to jog their memory. I felt my stomach sink when I drove by the now-empty building where Queen City operated for over a quarter century…I knew to expect it when I turned the corner, but the knowing didn’t do much to quell the impact of the sight of it. But I stocked up and made it back to Nashville in the dead of the night, leaving a bag of groceries on Jayda’s doorknob in the dead of the night…it was cold enough that I knew it’d keep ok.
Thanksgiving came not long afterward, and I made a point of assembling myself a Pennsylvania Dutch charcuterie plate full of what I’d have expected to find on the long table at Maplewood avenue back in the day – ring bologna, cheese, and kettle chips. I’d put thousands of miles on the odometer over the previous couple of weeks, but it had been fulfilling on multiple levels…personally and musically…and I was thankful for new memories to add to the archive.
So why not celebrate with a plate full of processed meat and cheese, huh?
Like most people, I suppose there are a number of things that I tend to believe selectively…when it’s convenient, or when it suits my narrative.
Probably at the top of that list would be the old adage that “everything happens for a reason”. Seems solid enough when it works to ones’ advantage, but I haven’t found much use for that one for a good long while…
…until this past weekend, maybe.
George Grantham (original Poco drummer, 1968-1977 and 2000-2004) had planned on making a “road trip” out of the sojourn to Wildwood Springs Lodge for Rusty Young’s memorial shows and service with his wife Debbie, so they’d have their own transportation available while they were there…Debbie isn’t big on depending on other folks to get them from place to place, and she felt up for the drive – but fate intervened in the form of a transmission issue that ended up quarantining their car at the garage well past when they’d have needed it back in order to make the trip.
Most of you know that George suffered a stroke onstage during a show in Springfield MA that effectively retired him from the road, although he’s made a number of appearances at special shows – he got up and played drums and sang “Pickin’ Up ThePieces” with the band at Wildwood in 2019, even.
If you stop by to read these missives on even a sporadic basis, you know that I’ve known George almost as long as I’ve known Rusty and Paul – nowadays, we live in the same city – so I wanted to do what I could to make sure the Granthams were able to be in Steelville for this last Wildwood Weekend if I could.
We hatched a plan to bring two cars, since Wendy and Danny were planning to come anyway – gear in one, luggage in the other – and Debbie rode along with Wendy while George rode shotgun with me.
I loaded a few decades’ worth of Poco and Buffalo Springfield MP3’s onto a flash drive and brought it along…and once we got everyone loaded up and said goodbye to Dusty (the Grantham’s fierce, man-eating attack dog), we started up Interstate 24 headed north to Missouri.
We started out making small talk here and there, but when the lulls between dialogue started to get longer, George started singing along to the Poco archive I’d been playing in the car since we left.
Half an hour or so up the road, Paul’s “Bad Weather” came on, and it froze both of us for a couple seconds or so, but then George went back to singing…and I took a harmony part right along with him.
Me being me, I immediately thought that “I’ve gotta get a snippet of this. For me. To remember the drive and the moment.” I pulled out my phone and held it up to the drivers’ side window and recorded thirty seconds or so of the two of us singing along with Paulie – George was blissfully unaware of what I was doing. But before I put my phone away, I held it up to my ear to listen to what I’d captured, and…
…I’ll be damned if George didn’t sound like…well, George Grantham!
I rationalized it in my head as I was doing it – “there are a ton of folks who want to be there this weekend that can’t be there, and they’d get a kick out of this. Maybe it’ll make them feel like they’re along for the ride” – and I uploaded it to Instagram and cross-posted it to Facebook with the hashtag:
My phone started buzzing on a regular basis as folks commented on the post on both platforms, so I kept recording us, and we kept singing…and singing…for damn near the whole six-plus hour drive.
I almost got away with it for the entire trip – that is, until we stopped for a bathroom break less than an hour from our destination. Debbie had no reason to think that I was doing it without George’s knowledge, so she mentioned it to him before we got back into the car to finish the trip and…well, I had to come clean.
George was all for it – and when we’d gotten checked into the hotel and went out for dinner, I showed him the dozens and dozens of comments people had left on the videos and he was clearly moved to see how many people were passing along well-wishes and love from various corners of the world. He even got the chance to listen to a couple of them, in between torrential blankets of rain that threatened to drown out whatever conversation might’ve been taking place at the table.
After dinner, I had planned on making good on my promise to screen a showing of “Count Me In” for George, but the WiFi was on the fritz, so we had to settle for a rerun of the Muscle Shoals documentary from my laptop’s hard drive instead…thus ended the first of three consecutive nights of post-midnight bedtimes.
Jack, Rick and I had spent some time discussing and curating the setlist for the Wildwood shows – trying to be sensitive to EVERY consideration possible, pacing the two sets and setting the theme for the first set as a tribute to Rusty – the reason the three of us were there in the first place, founder of the band and keeper of the fire for 53 years.
There were half a dozen videos that had been selected for the shows, plus a pair of videos that Richie Furay had sent in – one with some reminiscences about Rusty and Paul and another with a solo acoustic performance of “Bad Weather” and “Crazy Love”. I spent several days writing a script, recording voiceover, soliciting recorded input from friends and band members, editing audio and video for a tribute film we showed at the very beginning of the first set – the video ended with Rusty playing the chorus of “Where Did The Time Go” and I was to be seated with my guitar in hand when he hit the final chord and would start the first verse of the full-length version of the song just as he finished…then Mary walked onto the stage and put Rusty’s trademark hat onto the headstock of his guitar as Jack started playing “Old Hat” (a song that he and Rusty had written together that – coincidentally, Rusty played as his solo acoustic offering at the very first Poco show I ever saw) – from there, we’d play “Us”, the first song Rusty ever sang on a Poco record…you get the picture. We had some flexibility in the second set, but the first set was pretty solidly written in stone.
On Friday when we went to load in and soundcheck, I asked Jack and Rick how they felt about having George up for the first three songs of the second set – we had already planned on him doing his traditional appearance on “Pieces”, but he was in pretty great voice, and I knew that he was familiar enough with the three songs at the top of the second set that it’d be pretty low risk to have him up. We conducted the world’s quickest unanimous “yes” vote and it was on.
We ran through a few things to make sure everything was working – I had to improvise a pedal board on the spot, as I hadn’t had any time the previous week to get it together (I spent literally every non-working waking hour on finishing Rusty’s tribute video…the one I had done the year before to launch the Poco YouTube page was a solo effort with practically zero input, but this one was very much a communal effort, which quadrupled the time factor) – but I cobbled together a workable setup to get me through the weekend.
I felt that if I could just get through that first song both nights, I’d be OK.
Thankfully, I actually DID get through the first song without a hitch both nights, but my brain was so scattered that I managed to forget lyrics to a song each night in mid-sentence…once per show, a different song for both shows. I reversed verses for “One Tear at a Time” on Friday night, and my brains just ran down my nose during “Call it Love” on Saturday night.
We got through the first set – the Rusty Set – and I went and got George and brought him up for the three songs that kicked off the second set: “Child’s Claim to Fame”, “Kind Woman”, and “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”, and he sang his ass off.
When every other memory of last weekend has faded, the one I’ll cling to will be George walking off to a round of applause after finishing those songs, and taking his seat in the front row…then noticing that people hadn’t stopped applauding yet, at which point he stood up and turned around to the sight of THE ENTIRE HOUSE ON ITS FEET.
Watching George from my vantage point a few feet away as he turned around and looked around the room, soaking in all that love…that, my friends, was a moment.
Saturday morning, Michael Webb dragged himself out of bed after having played the Ryman with Amanda Shires the night before and drove all the way there to be a part of that night’s show, and to be there for Rusty’s memorial service the next day. He gave me an impromptu tour of the “Poco Wing” of the lodge, where they’d come to take care of overdubs for “All Fired Up” and told me about moving the furniture around in the rooms to accommodate the band’s recording hijinks.
There was a lunch get-together that afternoon at an AirBnB rented by longtime friends Marc and Sharon…we got up and got ourselves ready to head out that way and very nearly got lost, pulling into the driveway of the host – who was apparently pretty accustomed to having to take folks by the hand and lead them to the property, which he happily did for us. We stayed for a bit, but left earlier than I’d have liked, because we hadn’t gotten back to the hotel until almost 1AM the night before, and I wanted George to have a chance to rest up for the show that night, as it was almost certain that it would go at least as late as the night before had gone.
For that night’s show, we kept George up for the original three songs at the beginning of the second set PLUS “Keep On Tryin’”, and I made sure he knew the queue to come back up for “Good Feelin’ To Know” at the end of the night…a couple of people had needled me about playing “Wildwood” during the set, but the night seemed long enough as it were without getting too carried away with solo stuff. And sure enough, it was again well after midnight when we left to return to the hotel on Saturday night as well.
Sunday morning, Debbie had a predictably tough time getting George out of bed and ready to go to the church for Rusty’s service, but he pulled through. I’d talked to him on the way there about whether he wanted to say anything during the service or not, and he had somewhat mixed feelings about it…I told him that he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to, and that nobody expected him to if he wasn’t up for it, but – that if he did, I’d walk up with him if he wanted…and he said he’d decide once he got there. I went back to where he was sitting after I’d gone up and spoken and he seemed a little intimidated by the notion of going up (Debbie told me later that she’d had to nudge him a couple times to keep him awake, and I felt bad that we’d kept him up so late the past few nights…but I can’t imagine he’d have had it any other way.)
Everyone from the band had great stories – Michael talked about playing a B3 part for a song on “All Fired Up” on the day Jon Lord from Deep Purple died, and about getting the call from Rick Alter, asking if he “knew anybody” that might fit what Rusty was looking for when he had to replace Paul Cotton in the band. Jack talked about being taken out for all manners of food he’d never had before when Rusty brought him into the fold, and about hearing from Rusty when he’d decided to move to Missouri to be with Mary. Rick Lonow talked about the difference between the “Poconuts” and the typical hangers-on that so many other bands attracted and how the ‘Nuts have eclipsed that stereotype to become a huge extended family, bound together by this music.
That, after all, is why we were all there.
This music drew us all in at some point in our lives, and upon being drawn into this family, the people within the family itself came to mean as much to us as the music did. Yeah, I would’ve still loved the music if I’d never gotten to know the band and the extended family, but – maybe not quite enough to drive all night to a show on the other side of the state or up the coast…or make a trek to a mountainside in the Ozarks every third weekend of October for decades to be a part of “Wildwood Weekend”.
I talked to more than one person who’d driven fifteen hours – twenty hours – a day and a half – to be there this weekend. Others who’d suffered through some odd flavor of airline torture…and one poor soul who stepped through the front door during the final song of the night on Friday night and missed the entire show.
There was a woman who sat in the front row and sobbed while we sang “Crazy Love” for the last time.
These are folks who’ve made this trip faithfully, year after year – and weren’t about to miss one last chance to come say goodbye to their favorite band with the rest of their family.
The music was the main course, but it was about so much more than that…and Rusty kept that fire burning for half a century. We played Rusty’s songs, we played Paul Cotton songs (“Heart of the Night”, “Indian Summer”, among others) and we celebrated the music…because that will outlive them both. But we celebrated more than just “the band” – we were taking stock of the fact that we’re all only here for a short time, and every goodbye may be The Last Goodbye.
They were there to mourn the losses of Rusty and Paul, but we were also mourning the loss of this unique thing that had grown up around the music, around the band and the personalities involved – as people have come and gone, as the band has changed, as we’ve collectively grown older and as we’ve lost some of our old-timers (Naomi, Zog, Claudia, and a host of others), the family has persevered.
None of us really know what any of this looks like moving forward, but The Last Wildwood Weekend felt like a good time to confront the fact that what we’d always known it to be was over…and we were saying goodbye to that, too.
George was pretty drained when we left the service, and Debbie had to work the next day – so we bowed out of an invitation to Mary’s afterward so we could get on the road. But everyone was hungry, so we ended the weekend where it started: at Frisco’s in Cuba – home of Danny’s New Favorite Chicken Nuggets.
The place was very nearly empty, so we were thankfully in and out in pretty short order…but while we were sitting there, the faint strains of the piano intro from “Tiny Dancer” wafted in from somewhere, and (with the exception of Danny, who does NOT sing in public) the rest of us all started singing along on the chorus, right there at the table.
the extended Poco family lost one of our own recently – Claudia Upton. I made Claudia’s acquaintance online at first, as I did with most of this particular extended family, but then eventually met her at a show in the mid-nineties – although I don’t remember specifically when, or which show.
At my age, they all start to run together after a while.
Claudia was always dressed in black, usually with a camera around her neck, and has been responsible for some of my favorite photos from the time I’ve spent around the band over the years. She was, as was well known within “the family”, especially fond of Paul…as were a few other gals who turned up in the extended collection of folks who were often recurring characters in the extended “Poconut” gang. She adored my youngest, Danny, and was there at Danny’s very first Poco show when he was less than a month old (in King of Prussia, when Poco and Idlewheel appeared on an outdoor double-bill).
I got word that Claudia had passed via a Facebook message from a mutual friend as I was getting into my car in a parking lot outside the Mercy Lounge in Nashville…I think it came as a shock to a lot of us, even though those dark visits seem to become much more regular at this point in ones’ life. Her mother (who survives her) lives in an assisted living community and Claudia never missed a days’ visit – so when she hadn’t shown up for a few days in a row, folks became concerned and initiated an investigation and discovered that she’d passed, presumably peacefully, in her sleep at home.
When word finally got out, someone had posted online that there’d be a memorial for her at the bands’ annual weekend of shows at Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, MO this year. I commented on the post and tagged Jack Sundrud (Idlewheel bandmate, Poco bassist, and Nashville neighbor) and jokingly said that “if you need a ride north, I’ll drive” (most folks aren’t crazy about riding with me for some reason…can’t quite wrap my head around that)…but to my surprise, Jack messaged me back and said that if I wanted to come along, they could use some stage help…would I be interested?
I had worked this gig before with the guys, when Poco split a few Loggins and Messina dates back in 2009 or so. I had to change a broken E string on Richie Furay’s hollowbody Gibson, and got it done in just under two minutes…which won’t qualify me for anybody’s Roadie Olympics, but I thought it was pretty good for a rookie. I know how long it took because I clocked the time from the moment I took Richie’s guitar until I brought it back out on a YouTube video of the show someone had posted.
So I had the necessary experience, I guess.
I replied and said sure, I was game for helping out any way I could – so he circled back with Rusty & company and we confirmed everything for the weekend and it was written in pen.
I had just lost my ex-mother in law, and had made a trip to Pennsylvania the weekend prior, and had done the best I could to help my kids through that – so once I was back from that excursion, I swapped out the clothes in my bag and met Jack and drummer Rick Lonow at the car rental counter and we saddled up to head north. I volunteered for the first (and what I figured would be the only) shift behind the wheel…I fully intended to drive the whole stretch, but after managing to catch a speeding ticket in Metropolis, Illinois, the guys voted me out of the drivers’ seat for a spell.
(Fun Fact: If you get a speeding ticket in Metropolis, IL – you cannot just plead guilty and pay your fine online. You have to either show up for a court date or hire a lawyer to appear on your behalf. It’s easy to dismiss the stuff we hear about how corrupt and ridiculous the state of Illinois is, but there’s plenty of evidence that they’ve earned their shitty reputation.)
We got to Steelville just as it was getting dark and went to the venue to unload gear, meeting up with Rusty and Mary Young when we got there…it’s been a few years since I’ve seen either of them, and I was thrilled to see the two of them and catch up for a minute. I’m not unconvinced that Rusty doesn’t have a Dorian Gray oil painting aging away in the attic of his house…he’s managed somehow to steer this band through the past forty years and a full 80 percent of their lifespan and somehow appear outwardly to be none the worse for wear. I’ve been through a fraction of a fraction of what he’s been subjected to by this business, and I’m one of the most cynical bastards you’ll ever meet…but he still manages to remain gracious and kind and I’m honored to call him a friend.
Jack, Rick and I went to a BBQ joint in Cuba, Missouri that was right up the road from the hotel we were staying at before turning in for the night – we had a noon load-in at the venue, so we decided to try to get there a little before then, to wrap up getting the stage together.
I met Lex Browning in the car on the way to the show – Lex is the new guitarist/multi-instrumentalist who replaced Michael Webb, the departed keyboard player. Once we got to the venue, we got down to the business of getting the stage in order.
Not long afterward, though, the special guests showed up.
I hadn’t seen George Grantham’s wife, Debbie, since driving to Nashville almost fifteen years prior when his daughter and I were helping to set up a fundraising effort to generate cash for George after his stroke…Jack and I had gone to lunch with George here in town not long after I moved to town, but it had been a few years since I’d seen him at that point.
Not only was George getting up to sing during the show, but he was going to play drums for one song as well (Child’s Claim to Fame) – so that was something to look forward to.
Then Paul and Caroline came in.
The last time I saw Paul was in New Jersey in 2010 when I backed him on pedal steel, mandolin and dobro for a set he did at the first (and, to my knowledge, only) NationalRockCon event there…I had tried to coordinate a tour with Paul when I released Friends and Heroes in 2013 where I’d assemble a band, we’d open for – and then play behind – Paul as the headliner, but we never managed to get it off the ground. I ended up moving to Nashville the following year and we fell out of touch.
After landing in Nashville, 800 miles and a time zone removed from my old Northeast Corridor Poco family, I fell out of touch with the band for a while as well. I still did the occasional shows with Idlewheel (and Jack), and living in the same town as Jack, I’d occasionally try to connect with him as well, but I ended up hunkering down and shunning society for the past three years or so…OK, so not entirely, perhaps, but…I don’t get out much anymore.
So, flash forward to the present day – here was the current band with all my favorite members of the band over the years in the same room, getting ready for soundcheck. I assured Paul that I was behind him and that I had his back for the weekend – I don’t think he was expecting to see me, and certainly wasn’t expecting me to be there in a working capacity, so I think he was (at the least) relieved on that level. I won’t make any assumptions about whether he was happy to see me or not, but he sure seemed to be.
Rusty and I went over the technical particulars for the weekend – instrument changes, tuning, signal flow and the like – and reviewed the setlist. There’d be an initial set with the current band, and then after a short intermission and stage plot change, then Paul would come up, joined later by George who’d be playing drums on one song…we got all our traffic control details worked out, and they started soundcheck.
George and Paul both hung in patiently while the core band worked out monitor levels and the like, and then Paul came up to work through some of the songs he was doing: Indian Summer, Magnolia, Heart of the Night, Legend, Under the Gun, Bad Weather – it was as if I’d made the damn setlist myself.
As they played through the set, I remembered sitting in the audience in Lancaster, PA at the American Music Theater – it was a show they’d done with America right after Paul had come back from his health crisis during their then-recent European run, when we were all legitimately worried that Paul might not be coming back at all. They played Magnolia as I sat there in the audience, in the dark, with tears streaming down my face – thinking about how very close I had come to never hearing that song again the way I’d always heard it. That moment was some fifteen years past now, and there sat Paul Cotton right in front of me…again, after all these years, reminding me of two very important things:
Never say never.
2. Don’t ever take things for granted that may not pass this way again.
Claudia’s ghost was hanging heavy in the air for me the entire weekend, alongside Naomi Elkins and several other folks who’ve fallen off this plane of existence in the time since I came into this eccentric group of music loving geeks over twenty years ago. As such, it was hard not to think on an almost constant basis – how many more of these do we have in us? Will this be the last time I ever hear these songs from these people again? Paul and George, specifically, who’ve had pretty public health issues over the years – how many more shows could they have in their tank?
After Friday nights’ show, we went back to the hotel to a dining room full of Poconuts, and I stayed up until the last of us left at around 2am – the Leavys, the Behlkes and myself. I got to my room and couldn’t sleep…I had my laptop and a couple of notebooks in my bag, so I started scribbling in one of my lyric books. I thought of the notion of mashing up as many Poco lyrics as I could into a brand new song, just for fun – TV in central Missouri at 2am doesn’t exactly capture the imagination, and I was completely distracted by everything I’d been thinking all day long. Russell Hammond’s words to William Miller in Almost Famous came back to me:
“…This is the circus. Everybody’s trying not to go home.”
The first four lines were pretty easy:
In every day that passes us by Indian summers, come and gone I can still hear that nightbird’s cry Singing straight on through until the dawn
The next four, though, came from somewhere else:
Now, none of us are young men anymore Can’t ignore the writing on the wall Maybe that’s what the stories and the songs are for A chance to take our eyes off of the ball
Now this had turned from a fun little exercise into an actual song…
So many years have passed, but I still wanna hear that sound I wanna make it last, another time around Sing a picture of the days gone by, with a gentle aging hand Because tonight, my friends, all of us are living in the band
This much of the song had taken maybe ten minutes. I didn’t have an instrument with me, I was writing words for a melody in my head at the moment…but the words started writing themselves – a healthy dose of outright theft of Poco lyrics, tied together with whatever I needed to add to clarify where I was going with this love letter to the band and to the friends I’d met along the road who shared this irrational love for these musicians, these records, these songs that bound all of us together.
In the beginning, not so long ago For a thirteen year old kid from Tennessee There was just a little magic in that music they were singing And I could hear them calling out to me
They left a trail of love and glory As they crossed the southern sky My life would be a sadly different story If that harmony had somehow passed me by…
I added a slightly amended repeat of the chorus and a tag line…a repeat of the last line of the last chorus –
“..because tonight, my friends, what’s left of us – are living in the band.”
It’s both deceptive and disingenuous to take credit for writing the song, as the majority of the lines of the song are either direct lifts from Poco songs, or heavily – HEAVILY – paraphrased versions of lines from Poco songs…my job was essentially to put them in order and add what I needed to add to tell my story.
I was absolutely certain that I’d forget how it went by the time I woke up the next day. We stopped for a bite to eat on the way to the venue the following afternoon and once I got the stage set, I grabbed Rusty’s acoustic guitar and hunkered down in the green room and recorded a demo of it so I’d have a record of the song (while Lex busily went about working on his pedalboard next to me).
They didn’t play Bad Weather the previous night, and I wasn’t sure whether they’d bother to add it the second night or not – the first night had been a little ragged in spots in the second set, and I wasn’t sure how that would end up informing the set on Saturday night.
I saw Paul briefly before we dropped the house lights and made sure he had everything he needed, checked off everything I needed him to know – your guitars are tuned, your pedals are powered up, your amp is all set, and I’m ten feet away if you need me. Caroline, his wife, handed me his glasses (which he hates) and I gave him a hug and told him I loved him and we took a photo together before the show started.
Rusty and I had gone over the set – there’d be a couple of changes from the night before, nothing major, just be alert and ready for whatever might end up happening. We double and triple-checked the signal from his acoustic guitar, which had dropped out during the Friday show…it was fine a mere 30 minutes before the show, but we ended up losing the signal again on Saturday night (happy ending: we figured out what the problem was).
The current lineup’s set at the beginning of the night was just plain badass. There’s definitely an alchemy with this group of guys, and it makes me happy to see it. We broke for the second half, I moved the pedal steel into place, struck the dobro and got everything ready…Paul came out and did Magnolia, Indian Summer and Under the Gun in a straight shot. I thought they were going to bring George up next for Child’s Claim to Fame, but Rusty called me over to ask where the clipboard was (I had put it on top of one of the speaker columns to keep fans from stealing the setlists) – he had made a chart for Bad Weather as a safety net (he hadn’t played it in well over a decade by this point, so that made sense)…
….they were gonna do Bad Weather. Just Rusty and Paul.
I checked in with Paul – he was originally going to play it on acoustic when we ran it at soundcheck, but he decided to stay with the Gretsch…I patted him on the back and got out of the way.
I walked over to the side of the stage and got my phone out and recorded it from my vantage point at the side of the stage and tried to hold the camera still without letting everything I was feeling wash completely over me. The first time I opened for the band (over twenty years ago), we all went back to the bed and breakfast that the band was staying in, and Paul played that song in the hotel bar while I sang harmony with him at God-knows-what-time in the morning. That song is in my DNA, and while Paul maintains ownership of it…it’s not complete without Rusty playing steel on it. For years, it was Paul’s solo moment in the set, and I understand that. But that song, in my mind, will always be the sum of those two parts. And again, I couldn’t get out from under the notion that had hung over my head the entire weekend…
…this could be the last time.
Could this be the last performance of Bad Weather with Rusty and Paul? Could this be the last time George sits in on the drums for Childs’ Claim to Fame?
I know how fatalistic all this sounds. And this is something of a new outlook for me that seems to have descended on me within the past year or so – perhaps as a result of the rash of tragedy that’s passed by my window in that time. I typically don’t dwell on these things. Certainly, fate could well dictate that this could be the last time I post anything on my journal…tonight could be the last time I watch my youngest son dress up for Halloween. The unfinished songs on the hard drive in my studio downstairs could be the last songs I record. None of us knows how long we’ll be here, and we don’t get to know the answer to those questions. Faced with all this, though – I choose gratitude over some morose preoccupation with the darker side of it all. I got to be in the room for all this, and I’ve lived over half my life in the company of this band, this music, and these people.
I can’t help but feel like Claudia was tapping me on the shoulder the entire weekend, reminding me to soak this in, because you just never know.
You just never know.
After the show that night, I said my goodbyes to Paul and Caroline and we packed up the stage and loaded everything to get ready for the drive back the following day and we went back to the hotel…
…to another dining room full of Poconuts.
And no, there was no way I was going straight up to my room. I was gonna stay there with George and Debbie, with Jack and Rick and Lex and the Poconut family who’d travelled from Seattle and New York and Eastern PA and any number of places in between and celebrate the weekend. Jack had brought his guitar inside, so I asked him if it was OK for me to play a song.
I got out my notebook and played “Wildwood” for the first time, for the absolute perfect audience…the best of all possible debut scenarios for what I’d co-written with my unwitting collaborators.
“…sing a picture of the days gone by these crazy lovers understand because tonight, my friends, all of us – are living in the band… yes tonight, my friends, what’s left of us…are living in the band…”
May we all someday arrive back here…at the beginning…not so long ago.
anybody who has a passionate pursuit in their lives has an ideal – a mental picture of what their passion looks like when it manifests itself in its purest, most perfect form. for a surfer, it’s catching the perfect wave and riding it to the sand. bowling a perfect 300. pitching a no-hitter. a hole-in-one.
for musicians, there really isn’t a consistent answer, though, is there? nailing a difficult instrumental passage or playing something that was once impossible, maybe…or getting a gig you’d worked hard for, or maybe playing a show with a personal hero – there are probably as many definitions of “perfect” as there are folks who’d be willing to answer the question.
but i think it’s safe to say that for us creative types, the pursuit of our own personal definition of “perfection” is the consistent thing that keeps us coming back – the thing that drives us – the reason we get out of bed.
and let’s face it…it’s the pursuit itself that drives us. the desire to be the best we can be at whatever we’ve chosen. because nobody wants to feel like Brian Wilson hearing from Paul McCartney that “God Only Knows” was the greatest song he’d ever heard – as the story goes, when Wilson heard that from one of his songwriting heroes, he hid in a closet and cried because he took that as a sign that he’d never be able to surpass what he’d already done.
so maybe the pursuit of perfection is a lofty goal, but catching it is another matter altogether.
but boy, let me tell ya…when you get as close as we collectively came at Sellersville with Dan May last week, it’s intoxicating.
and when you’ve been at this chase long enough to know how rare it is to dance that close, and you can realize the significance of that fleeting moment in real time, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to soak it in as it’s happening.
i sure did.
it had been almost exactly a year since the last time i played at Sellersville (a solo acoustic show i did opening for Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett from Little Feat, which you can actually see in its entirety here). as stages go, it’s the place i feel most comfortable, the most at-home…the easiest place to play in the world for me. i’ve played some amazing shows there over the years, and there have been a lot of capital-M “moments” – it would take another entire post to catalog them properly and do them justice.
one of those moments in particular came up during dinner this night, in fact – we were playing an opening set and our long lost, lamentedly disappeared fiddle player, Lainey Wilson, was on the show. during the final song, our bass player (Kurm the Shoeless One) leaned over to her and said “Go Off!” his intention was that she take a solo over the end of the song while Dan was walking offstage, but she took her cue from Dan when Kurm told her to “go off” and left the stage instead.
i brought my friend Chris with me to the show, which meant that she had to endure load-in AND soundcheck, as well as suffer our collective company for the night – but she epitomizes the notion of “easy people” and took it all in with a smile…i had prepared her somewhat for what to expect so she was armed with distractions, just in case.
Dan’s band has never had a consistent stage plot, as there have always been different folks on different shows – but the band has solidified somewhat of late, with regard to the core. Tommy and Dan Faga have become the default rhythm section, and they’ve developed as a unit instinctively over time. Dan was a friend long before he outed himself as a bass player, and having him at eye level has been a gift. His wife (and fellow ST94 alum) Aly came out with their two girls during load-in and they came bearing gifts (a cake plate full of cupcakes). I remembered the fact that they had met there in that very room years before, not yet a couple…then a couple in secret, then all these years later married with children and – in my mind – fully inseparable from that room itself.
Tommy is my champion – the other half of The Tommys, my bandmate in almost a dozen bands over the years, and often the air that holds up whatever craft we happen to be flying on a given night. his presence is buoyant and he makes damn near everything better just by being there to laugh at it…unless there are avocado wraps involved. don’t ask.
Anthony Newett became an instant soulmate the first time we played together. Ant and I are the musical equivalent of one of those old married couples you see at the diner who can sit together and have a meal and pass condiments and dishes across the table without exchanging a word and always seem to innately sense what the other is about to do.
One of the things that makes our relationship (musically, anyway) special is that there’s something of an unspoken understanding between us of what our personal strengths and weaknesses are, and Ant has a way of reacting to what I play in an almost telepathic sense. he’s a much better musician than I am, and he uses that ability to read my thoughts and play parts that complement what I’m doing in a way that – hell, maybe only I end up noticing, I don’t know. but when we play together, he totally takes advantage of this ability and will play something that commands my attention (often multiple times a night), and will – as soon as I react and look over at him – will look back up at me momentarily, raise one eyebrow (a la Belushi), give me a momentary smile and continue doing what he was doing.
I wish I could put into words what playing with Ant does for my spiritual well-being, but I don’t know that I can. Musically, he is inseparable from who I am – he’s my missing part.
But wait…there’s more. Get a load of what he’s done now.
I started hearing this name crop up relatively recently, and I wasn’t sure what the story was because I was on the outside looking in – her name appeared first in a couple random posts by Dan, and I found out a while back that this Claudia Terry would be joining us for this show.
I hadn’t met her, didn’t know anything about her, and wasn’t sure what to expect – I didn’t know if she’d be primarily a harmony vocalist like Heather had been, or if she had something else to contribute. Once I heard she was there on Ant’s recommendation, I immediately felt at ease, because Ant’s not about to bring someone into this orbit who couldn’t pull their weight.
Still, my acoustic guitar parts are pretty specific, and have a certain feel to them that other far superior musicians to myself haven’t really been able to cop in the past, so I was prepared to play my parts alongside the New Girl for the duration of the night, just to make sure that foundation was there.
Well, you ain’t gonna believe this shit, but lemme tell ya…
We had loaded in and were in the process of gravitating to our respective spots in the stage plot for this particular night, and we were discussing songs from the set during line check and she started playing the intro to “The Glory Years” – MY intro to “The Glory Years” – and SHE FUCKING NAILED IT. It was perfect!
Now she had my attention.
Claudia is 19 years old. That’s significant.
It’s significant because – even in this era of YouTube Geniuses – there’s a feel, a grasp of timing, a comfort level with an instrument that some douchebag with a British accent can’t teach you during the course of a video on the internet. And yet, here’s this girl with pretty limited experience in this setting just KILLING these parts that she’d only learned prior to this show.
And she SINGS! Holy shit, she sings – and her innate ear for harmonies blew my mind. It was as if she’d prepared for the fact that I’d be there to sing the middle third and she just automatically went to the high fifth on damn near everything – and that’s just not something that you can prepare for, really…you either hear it and sing the part reflexively or you don’t, and she reacted in real time to where she needed to go and landed there…
every. damn. time.
I fell in love with this kid on this night. I wanted to bring her home with me and get her a room and give her free reign over my record collection and the studio and stand back and watch her blossom and let her head explode all over the living room floor and stand back and see where she goes from here – and it only got better from this point through the end of the night.
When I was a teenager, I played drums with “the” band in my little hometown, the band that got all the good gigs in town, that everybody came to see…and this Friday night, I remembered something that Jerry “Opie” Opdycke said to me after a gig one night when I was 16.
“Tom, man…you’ve got the best chance of any of us to make something of yourself in this business because you’ve got your whole life in front of you. You’re damn good, and somebody, somewhere is gonna notice that sooner or later.”
Now, decades later, I found myself watching this girl barely old enough to vote and not yet able to drink or buy cigarettes at a convenience store standing across the stage from me and just slaying everything she played.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience watching a kid play sports in high school or something to that effect and feeling like you were witnessing something out of the ordinary – the potential for greatness that maybe only you saw at the time?
Claudia is something special. I knew it the first time we played through an intro together on that stage, that night.
I was already elated when we wrapped up soundcheck and went next door to dinner – we ordered food and everyone fell into comfortable conversation..Ant sat on one side of me, Chris and Dan Faga on the other, Tommy, Dan and Claudia across from me – with occasional visits from Lisa and Adam (Dan May’s wife and son) and a few other folks who’d come to the show (Dennis Whelan and some of the May clan from Ohio, among others)…it was becoming clear to me that this was going to be a special night, whether it turned out that way musically or not.
I was struck there at the dinner table that this was once a pretty regular stop for me – that I’d sat at that table with a ton of musicians in the years past – and that being able to be here for this wasn’t something I could take for granted the way that I’d perhaps done in the past…I made an extra effort to look around the table at my bandmates, my friends, my fellow travellers and to appreciate the moment…Dan and Chris discussing parenting on my right while I interrogated Claudia about her musical background and introducing the concept that maybe she was adopted if her parents weren’t musicians, while Anthony told me their story and Tommy was busy being Tommy…then we broke out the cupcakes that Dan’s daughters and family had made for us and we FaceTime’d the girls and raised the cupcakes in a toast to them, back home at Faga Manor, before we settled up and prepared to head across the parking lot.
I think it’s fair to say that the seeds for what happened on the stage at Sellersville were sewn at the dinner table that night.
When we left to head next door to wait for showtime, there was already something in the air.
We parted ways with Chris, who went out to take her seat in the theater, and we all circled ’round the bench seating in the green room – there was a bottle of bourbon in there and someone opened it and I poured a little in the bottom of a plastic cup and filled the rest with diet soda while everyone else poured themselves a little and we raised a toast. We talked for a short while and after a few minutes, a folded piece of paper fell onto the floor just inside the stage door.
Dan Faga picked it up and saw that it had my name on the outside fold, and handed it to me. I opened it up and read what was written in pencil on the inside of the paper….
“…do you know Free Bird?”
So I explained to the rest of the band how some 22 years ago, Chris had come to the CD release party for an album I’d put out in 1997 and had asked the doorman to hand me her business card with the same thing – “do you know Free Bird?” – written on the back of it.
It wasn’t long before Lizanne Knott and her daugher Ciara came in, accompanied by Glenn Barratt (who played bass behind her for the show) – so Tommy and I accompanied both of them for their sets as well.
There wasn’t a ton of time between when Lizanne came off the stage and when Dan went on…or at least it didn’t feel like it. We were back on the stage within moments of having walked off – Tommy and me. Me and Tommy. The League of Extraordinary Sidemen. The Tommys.
“Ladies and Gentlemen…please welcome – singer, songwriter and freelance Supreme Court Justice – Dan May!”
OK, I’m going to be perhaps painfully frank with you here.
I don’t remember a lot about the set.
I don’t remember the order of the songs we played, I don’t remember who took solos on which songs, I don’t remember which stories Dan read from his books…it all ran together in a blissful cloud in my head.
That might sound ridiculous, but it’s true.
On nights when shit ain’t happening, I can tell you every mistake I made, and every mistake that everybody else in the band made in EXCRUCIATING detail.
this night, though…oh. my. God.
It was an orgy of amazing harmonies, of stoic raised-eyebrow glances from Ant, of sheer exuberance from Tommy, of flawless rock-solid bottom from Dan Faga, and…
I don’t even know if I’m able to talk about my relationship with Dan without getting emotional. I’ve been playing, singing, and riding shotgun with him for over a decade, and I’ve given him more than enough reason to abandon me for greener pastures and he’s stuck with me, and as such – he’s stuck with me. I love Dan in a way that I’m incapable of putting into words. He’s been a musical soulmate from the moment he sent me a copy of “Once Was Red” in the mail in response to a Craigslist ad that I answered a lifetime ago and I put the CD into the player in my old Isuzu Trooper and heard the strains of “Lights Out In Tupelo” blaring out of the speakers. He’s brought me on the road, he’s put me up with his family (who have, in turn, become my family), we’ve played shows all over the continental US and I consider him a brother – no, really, a Brother.
This show, on this night, was a blur.
It felt as though it was over before it started, and I was outside my body wondering what had just happened.
The house lights came up and shook me loose from whatever wave I was riding, so I walked down front and started talking to folks who’d come up to say hello.
What with hanging my hat in Nashville now, I didn’t get to see these folks as often as I once did, so tonight was A Thing.
Mike and Judy Morsch. Al and Carol Bien. Jack Leitmeyer. Dennis Whelan. John Woolley.
And those are just the folks who bothered to stick around…I know from aftershow reports that Frank Friestadt (the custodian of my old Fender Deluxe Reverb), Liz Miller, and several other folks who needed to leave without saying hello were in that room on that night as well.
So I stood down in front of the stage after the lights came up and Alex turned on the background music and had a receiving line of sorts for some time…all the while, listening to what was playing overhead…
“Well I’ve been looking for somewhere to go You’ve been looking for a place to roam…”
There were a few folks still wandering about the floor, some of them ushers and some of them friends who were still chatting with the folks preparing to start tearing down the stage.
“But I’ll be steady in your hand If you’ll take me as I am I’ll be your rock, if you’ll roll me on home…”
I finally said goodnight to the last of the folks who’d come down to say hello and saw Chris, sitting at the corner of the first row of seats. I walked over to sit down for a minute – she was beaming. I remembered having looked out over the audience at shows some twenty years ago and seeing that same face, and I sat down next to her and looked back at the stage for a short moment – now fully lit, with folks tearing down equipment as if nothing had happened there that night…
“We’ll build a house outta broken dreams And find our way back to reality…”
I looked around me for a long, long minute…and I looked over at Chris…
and I just nestled my face into her shoulder and cried like a baby. HARD.
I’m sure I probably made some folks uncomfortable. If I did, I’m sorry.
But it was just too much.
Now, this is the point at which we should probably recap, a la Rob Gordon from High Fidelity:
“So, how did Tom go from being the gregarious guy in the band to being a blubbering emotional minefield in the space of a few minutes? Well, it’s probably the result of at least two, or maybe all four, of the following points coming to the surface…”
ONE – mortality.
When you’ve been doing this for an expanse of time, for a large portion of your life, chasing that momentary perfection that we talked about a bit at the top of this endless trope, you learn a few things. You learn that it doesn’t happen often. You learn that when it does, it’s usually fleeting. And, if you’re lucky…RIDICULOUSLY lucky…you learn to recognize it as it’s happening and try to commit as much of what’s happening around you to memory. AND – you realize over time that these moments are precious and that every time you experience it might be the last time.
TWO – comeraderie.
On this night, I was surrounded by exactly the right people, on stage with exactly the right people, and felt every ounce of the love that was in that room – from the audience, from my fellow players, from my artist, from my people in the audience…that room was awash in love from the moment we stepped onto that stage, and it was palpable.
THREE – the show itself.
I can’t even, really…it was just amazing. I got to put down my acoustic guitar and play other instruments, thanks to Claudia and Ant, I got to hear this amazing band play its ass off in front of an audience that loved us on a musical AND personal level, and we gave them back every ounce of energy they sent towards the stage.
FOUR – nostalgia.
Sellersville is my Home Stage.
It’s always been my home stage. it’s the room where I had my CD release for “Friends and Heroes”, it’s where I played with Marshall Tucker for one of the first times, it’s the room where I recorded Craig Bickhardt’s live record, it’s the place where I watched Dan and Alyson Faga’s friendship grow into romance, then matrimony, then a beautiful family. I played there with Robert Hazard, with John Lilley, with JD Malone, with Craig Bickhardt, with Pure Prairie League, with Poco, with Blake Allen, with Skip Denenberg, with Tracy Grammer, and with Dan May…
It’s a sacred place for me.
And what better place for a transcendental experience like what happened this night?
So, yeah…I lost my shit. Sue me.
I gathered myself long enough to start asking questions about this music that was playing in the background, and found out it was a Canadian singer/songwriter named Ken Yates – his 2016 album, Huntsville, had been playing ever since the lights came up, and EVERY FUCKING SONG WAS AN ARROW THROUGH MY HEART.
After I’d managed to gather myself a bit, Tommy and Dan came down and hung with us for a bit – Tommy had miraculously found a bottle of white wine and a few cups, so Chris took my car keys and we drank wine and talked while they finished tearing down the stage….until ultimately they turned off the music and it was time to go home.
Chris drove us back to Phoenixville and stayed up with me until after 3am talking about what had just happened…I think that what had happened in that room hadn’t been lost on anyone that night – least of all either of us.
It’s a rare friend who’ll forego five-plus hours of sleep to experience something like this with you, and to those friends you should hold on, folks.
Reaction on social media was swift and intense…those who were there, they know. Those who weren’t…I’m sorry.
I will forever be grateful that I was one of the ones who stood on that stage that night, with that group of musicians on the stage and that group of folks in the audience.
for those keeping track, this would be show number 37 for me at Sellersville Theater – but who’s counting, right?
one thing that had been unbeknownst to me prior to walking into the theater was that WHYY (the philly PBS affiliate) was there that night, taping the headliners’ show for their series, On Canvas – which made me chuckle somewhat, since i had been looking all over the house earlier that day trying to find my videocamera so i could record some footage to put up on my YouTube channel. (turned out, that wouldn’t have gone over very well, anyway…under the circumstances.)
there were going to be photos taken that night, and that inspired a truly comical exchange between dylan, christie and i before we’d ever left the house – over what combination of shirts i should wear for the show. we settled on something that dylan had fetched from my closet that wasn’t even initially in the running…and it was actually a good call, in retrospect, but good as i might’ve looked in it, it mattered not – because due to the whole “TV shoot” situation, darrell (the photographer) wasn’t really able to move around during the show, and could only shoot from his seat – which was right down front…and didn’t make for the best angle to photograph a dude with a thick neck who looks down a lot while playing. 🙂
as it turned out, darrell got all his best shots during soundcheck – as i stood there on stage wearing one of my favorite old ringer t-shirts with my hair flopping down around my shoulders – but they were great shots. not necessarily transformative, but they looked like me. darrell’s photos of me are some of the only photos i’ve seen of myself that don’t make me uncomfortable. i’m as aware – maybe more aware – than most anyone else of my assets and shortcomings, and i certainly know what my attributes are and aren’t…and darrell’s photos aren’t overly flattering, nor are they hard for me to look at. i’m not terribly fond of looking at photos of myself typically, but i don’t mind his so much.
(i know that might not sound like an endorsement, but trust me – it is.) 🙂
anyway – because of the TV taping, there was a lot going on on the technical side of things, Dan Faga (the soundman/technical director) asked me to keep playing well after my soundcheck was finished…so i ended up playing most of my set and then a few more while they worked on levels, got the signal out to the truck and such. in fact, i think my soundcheck was actually longer than my set was – but i kept playing while darrell snapped away and they worked out the kinks behind the scenes.
i finally stopped playing around fifteen minutes before the doors opened, and went upstairs to the green room – my friend rob nagy had arrived and was listening to my soundcheck, and my buddy skip bellus (a friend from the MTB run) had driven down for the show as well…so we all gathered in the green room for a visit, and bruce ranes (the talent buyer/agent) stopped up for a visit as well, and darrell came up and shared the soundcheck photos with christie. it was good to have a handful of friends around, almost as much as it was to have a sizable crowd to play for.
i’d left everything on the stage, so when i wandered up to take the stage, everything was in place, plugged in and ready to go – i wandered up,
did my five to six songs (which seemed to fly by, as they typically do for opening sets), and quickly stowed my stuff behind the curtain so i could get out to the lobby and take advantage of the intermission face-time with the folks in the crowd – we sold a few CD’s, got a few names on the mailing list, and shook a lot of hands before the headliner came on…and while i was tempted to head down into the theater to listen for a while, i ended up heading back up to the green room to hang out with rob, skip and christie for a big chunk of the rest of the night. we wandered downstairs at one point to find that there was some sort of impromptu intermission that had come up…we both initially thought the show was over, and that we’d totally screwed up our opportunity to press the flesh after the show, but it turned out not to be the case, so we stayed downstairs for the rest of the show (and got to know the On Canvas folks, who were very kind and encouraging as well).
by the time everyone had filed out to head home, it had gotten rather late – nearly one in the morning by the time i’d gotten home, and poor christie – she had another nearly two hours to go yet, and got home around three or so.
good night, though, overall….for number thirty-seven.
so i called my hetero life mate – tommy geddes – to see if we could carpool for this one (since we’re down to one car at my house these days, it would be a load off my mind not to have to worry about being gone all day and leaving the gang without transport…it’s been interesting, to say the least, coordinating life these days where commuting and such is concerned, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. ) – we decided to leave around 4:30 or so, and i brought TG & the guys copies of the rough mixes from the record that i’d completed up to that point.
neither of us had played this room before (nor had craig, so far as i knew), so we weren’t sure what to expect from the room or the audience – and since i was a guest of tommys’ for the ride there and back, i chose to travel somewhat lightly…i brought the mandolin, the dobro, and the weissenborn, and decided i was going direct for the show and left my amp (and the baritone guitar, and the lap steel, etc) at home.
i LOVE playing the weissenborn – but i’ve always struggled a little with it in live settings…and i could wonder aloud about that endlessly, but i’ve settled on a theory of sorts.
if you’ve heard the instrument and you’re familiar with the sound of the weissenborn, then you probably recognize it immediately – it sounds like an acoustic guitar, but it doesn’t…it sounds like a dobro, but it doesn’t. the fact is, it doesn’t really sound like anything but itself. BUT – it sounds enough like an acoustic guitar that it’s very easy to have them conflict and overlap with one another when one is accompanying the other – so you really, really have to tread carefully with the weissenborn when you’re accompanying the acoustic guitar.
i’m sure david lindley figured this shit out ages ago…but we all gotta learn our own way, i suppose. 🙂
i was pleasantly surprised with how well everything translated through a single channel of the PA, where those three instruments were concerned – i had the Fishman Jerry Douglas Aura pedal for the dobro, but had it running through the effects loop built into my active DI box, so i could bring it into the circuit when I was playing the dobro and bypass it for the other instruments…i was also a little blown away by how good the mando and the weissenborn sounded through the same channel, with the same EQ chain. that was especially odd to me since one had a piezo pickup and the other had a magnetic soundhole pickup…but you wouldn’t have known it from listening to it through the wedges.
craig was still struggling a bit with his voice – and had been for some time – but it seemed as though he was on the other side of it, when he sang. he still had a bit of a cough, but his throat held up for the show just fine.
tommy had posted something on facebook about the show, and had tagged greg and jen keller in the post in a lighthearted attempt to shame them into driving over from mount airy (in the vicinity of frederick) – and i’ll be damned if they didn’t come out. they were the only faces in the crowd that we knew, which was interesting – it was a small room, maybe a capacity of 55 or 60, and it was roughly two-thirds full, but most of the folks who were there were regulars of the coffeehouse who’d come out because they were affiliated with the church that ran the coffeehouse or perhaps because that’s just what they did on weekends – but they were very kind and welcoming. we played two sets with an intermission, and had a solid night, all things considered.
tommy and i rode back listening to the rough mixes from the record – some of them are verrrry close to being finished, others are still a little perplexing…but i’m workin’ on it. 🙂
show number 36 for me at Sellersville Theater, in both headlining and support capacities, either solo or backing one of nine (!!) different artists i’ve appeared with there.
it’d also be the first time on the bill with the Marshall Tucker boys since we parted ways back in September – although i’ve been in touch with a couple of the guys via text once in a great, great while – but haven’t seen any of them since the York Fair show.
skip had submitted himself as an acoustic duo, but added dan faga on bass after the fact – and had tried to sneak a drummer onto the bill as well, but was predictably met with the obligatory stop sign. i had tried to tell him when the subject came up that the stage was too small for support backline with all the MTB stuff set up, but sometimes ya just gotta find these things out for yourself. 🙂
we hadn’t had an opportunity to rehearse prior to the show, but most of the songs in the set were songs we’d played together before – so it was just a matter of running them in the green room prior to the show, really. no sweat.
we coordinated transportation with our Sargeant-at-Arms, Mark Shultz, and drove up together – and got there well before we were expected, and certainly well before they were ready for us…so we walked upstairs to the green room and unpacked and ran through some of the songs while we waited for someone to come retrieve us for soundcheck. the customary sandwiches came in and we had already run the set through once before it was time to head down to the stage.
we headed down and i ran into Keith and Daryl almost immediately, but barely exchanged small talk during soundcheck – Dibby came up behind me after we’d all but wrapped up and gave me a bear hug and asked if i’d brought my steel and my amp…and i said no, of course i didn’t – i hadn’t heard from anyone and i wasn’t going to chase anyone down – he seemed to be under the impression that i was going to be joining them that night, but it was literally the first i’d heard of it.
oh, well. shit happens.
at any rate, we went back upstairs to wait for the call for showtime and hung out with a few friends who’d come up to visit, but we were back downstairs on the stage in a few minutes. for this set, i was playing mandolin on every song but one…and that one was a dobro song. i was travelling light, and it made for a quick tear-down after we were finished. in fact, i was probably packed up and ready to walk out the door within five minutes. the only other person i saw the whole night was chris hicks, who poked his head up the steps and waved at me for a moment in between songs and was gone just as quickly.
after we finished up, i was back upstairs in the green room in less than ten minutes.
back upstairs, we sat around and talked for the entire length of the show…i walked downstairs right after the first song at the point in the setlist where “fire on the mountain” usually is, but they went straight to “take the highway” and i walked back upstairs for the rest of the night – a buddy had brought me brownies that his daughter had made for me for Christmas, and i didn’t want to pull him out of the show, so we hung out until afterward….we were on the road by 11:30 or so.
y’know, i can still remember the very first time that craig bickhardt and i played together. it was at chaplin’s in spring city, pa – we were doing a songwriter’s round, and i was there because skip denenberg and jim femino brought me along. at the time, jim was developing an artist who was also on the bill named kassie miller, and he’d recruited me to back her instrumentally. when jim was doing the rounds, he set the room up bluebird cafe style – with a table and a large lamp right in the middle of the floor, with everyone around the table…and tables and chairs were actually set up on the stage to minimize the impact of the stage and make the whole space feel like a stageless room that could’ve passed for someone’s den.
craig and i kinda latched onto one another at that point, and we’ve worked together ever since – both with me backing him instrumentally under his own name, and then later as a full member of a side project he’d undertaken with poco bassist jack sundrud called idlewheel.
craig’s songs are understatedly elegant, and while they’re not terribly complex, they are a challenge to play properly – which is to say, there’s definitely a line of delineation between overplaying and playing what’s appropriate for the song. his music requires a certain understanding of how much is enough, and how much is too much. it’s not a gig for everybody…but that’s one of the things i love about playing with him. if you understand that simple concept, you’ll look like a genius playing next to him – whether the description is accurate or not.
craig has also opened some doors and there are relationships that i’ve formed as a result of my association with him that would not have come about otherwise – many of them through the “On The Road and In The Round” shows we’ve done. stellar writers and performers like don henry, julie gold, thom schuyler, jim photoglo, and others have done these shows with us – alongside great local talent like jd malone and lizanne knott…and i’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to join the crew and back everyone on the bill for a lot of these shows, and while the “trial under fire” aspect might be scary at times, it’s also a bit of an adrenaline rush. and, thankfully, thus far there’ve been no complaints.
for this show, there was some new blood along for the ride – michael johnson, of “bluer than blue”, “this night won’t last forever”, “give me wings” and “that’s that” fame. (fun facts: michael johnson was the first guy in nashville to give jack sundrud a gig as a bassist. also, “give me wings” was my ex-mother-in-law’s favorite song for many years.)
i had never met or played with michael, but don henry was joining us along with craig and lizanne knott, so michael was the only unfamiliar face on the bill – and i was pretty sure that we’d all be ok…and i know when to play and when to sit back and fold my hands in my lap, so i had that going for me too – along with the fact that i was on my home turf, on stage at sellersville theater.
craig, don and lizanne were their usual entertaining, funny and brilliant selves – and michael was a great fit in every one of the same categories, as well. he’s a great player, for one thing – sticks to nylon string guitar, a wonderful fingerstyle player…and played some funny parodies of standards like “you make me feel so…so” – and to the tune of “blue bayou“, he did a song about a toupee called “blew by you“. but i did get to sing the high harmony to “bluer than blue“, and i got to play “beautiful goodbye” with don henry with his co-writer, mike moran, in the audience, as well as don’s song “all kinds of kinds” (a recent number one for miranda lambert) – and the usual assortment of awesome bickhardt songs, closing the show as we often do with “this old house” and “if he came back again“.
i don’t think i’d ever brought the pedal steel out to one of the OTRAITR shows, but i fixed that for this gig – it was lap steel, pedal steel, mandolin and baritone guitar…and ran it all through the princeton reverb, turned with the speaker pointed towards the curtain behind us. it would be this particular night that the reverb would decide not to work, though. (note to self: stop procrastinating and get the new pedalboard worked out yesterday.)
the steel city gigs have always been jd malone‘s hometown shows – and we’ve always done well there, and this show was no exception. a great crowd with lots of friendly faces – oh, and it was carolyn’s (jd’s wife) birthday, so that didn’t hurt, either.
the opener was a young guy from north carolina named sam lewis – usually, the opener gets drowned out by conversation and laughter in the green room…only because that’s inevitable when this crew is all in the same place. now, i’m not saying there wasn’t plenty of both, but sam was an undeniable talent, and i sure did enjoy his set. super nice guy, as well. he was actually touring via Amtrak – taking whatever form of transportation he could get to the gig, which had to have been an interesting twist…i can vaguely remember being young enough to have the gumption to try something like that, but it seems so very long ago now. 🙂
dylan and jayda both came to the show, as did wendy – who cut a deal with carolyn’s kids to hang out with danny so she could get a night off to come out and hang out with grownups.
now, it’s been quite some time since i’ve bothered to update my perpetual life story, here – and to say that much has happened in the time since would be an understatement akin to calling World War II a “territorial conflict”.
a lot has happened since we last spoke. a LOT.
and, frankly, it’s only been a few weeks since i had largely resigned myself to the notion that i might not be speaking with either of my older children again for quite some time, if ever. things had soured that much. i’m not certain right now to what extent the ship has righted itself, but it was good to have them both there that night, to say the least. even if all the debris from the summer hasn’t washed away yet.
the last time we played this room, i brought “the toaster” – my ’57 gibson GA-20T amplifier. i was promptly washed out and almost inaudible for the show. i had it turned up waaaay past its’ sweet spot, and it didn’t respond particularly well. i was thinking about bringing my deluxe reverb this time around, but with everybody riding together, space was at a premium. so, i figured, the princeton did so well on the denver shows with boris garcia last year, maybe it wouldn’t be completely out of line to give it a crack at this gig. plus, with the space issue being what it was, i didn’t bring the banjo, the 12 string electric, or any of the other toys – it was lap steel, baritone guitar, and mandolin and that was it. so you could say i was travelling uncharacteristically light for this gig, and i figured that if worse came to worse, i could use one of the backline amps from the green room…which i always seem to forget about until i go downstairs to stow my cases and see them there. 🙂
well, the princeton made its daddy proud – i had it on 5 most of the night, and it sounded amazing – especially on the lap steel. that’s definitely its’ sweet spot for that instrument. the band was, this time as it was last time, pretty loud for a room that size. i don’t know how many other acts that play that room are as loud as we are/were, but we shook the rafters, for sure.
jd debuted a few new songs during the show, with my personal favorite being if you pray…but we also shook up window painted blue quite a bit, as well. i had made up my mind that there really wasn’t going to be an arrangement of that song that both he and i were gonna be happy with, but he proved me wrong. and of course, jayda got up with us to sing black yodel and leave us alone…i couldn’t hear her vocal at all on the latter, and for a while thought that maybe she’d been doubling my part until the bridge came around and the dynamic died down enough that i could actually hear her voice.
next gig i have on the books with the guys will be burlap and bean later this winter.
friday, november 11th – 19 Broadway in Fairfax, CA
saturday, november 12th – Caspar Inn in Mendocino, CA
sunday, november 13th – Nelson Family Vineyards in Ukiah, CA
monday, november 14th – Humbrews in Arcata, CA
thursday, november 17th – Connecticut Yankee in San Francisco, CA
friday, november 18th – Ashkenaz in Berkeley, CA
saturday, november 19th – River Theater in Guerneville, CA
sunday, november 20th – Manzanita Place in Chico, CA
after two solid days of running around like an idiot trying to get everything wrapped up that i needed to take care of before leaving for an extended stretch, wendy and danny dropped me off at the airport at around 3:30…and i was surprised to find that i was the first of the band to get there. bud and steve pulled up to the terminal just as i’d gotten out of the van and collected myself on the sidewalk to go in and print my boarding pass and check my bags, and bob and jeff weren’t far behind. relatively uneventful flight, for the most part – save for the effort required on my part to block out the in-flight viewing of rise of the planet of the apes…hardly must-see TV. i tried on a few occasions to listen to the patently unlistenable Zune music channels – and contemplated how the lines between genres are going to be largely nonexistent soon. you’ve got country acts rapping, pop channels playing lady antebellum, and all of it sounds like it’s mastered through the exact same Waves plug-in as everything else.
so i leaned pretty heavily on my phone for the lion’s share of the flight, kinda coasting in and out of consciousness…waking up every now and then to a scalp massage from the guy in the seat behind me (stirner).
since our noon radio hit was cancelled, our first actual hit would be at 2pm the next day – so that bought us some extra time…but by the time we’d managed to pick up the van and head up the road an hour and a half or so, everyone was pretty worn out from the trip. the van that we landed was a chevy, and – as we’d soon find out – was a poor shadow of what we’d had when we came out for the last trip. it rode like shit, had swinging doors on the side (which seems like a non-issue until you try to use them in a practical sense), and power-nothing…when you went to load in, you had to manually unlock the doors…manual windows…and, frankly, i wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d have had to rock a lever back and forth to make the windshield wipers work.
and it was about as far from a smooth ride as you can get without involving horses or mules. total pain in the ass.
but – it was functional. and as such, once bud and i picked up the van and retrieved the other guys from the baggage claim, we headed up the road to the first of our overnight accomodations – and after hitting the drive-thru next door to the hotel, we settled in for the night.
KZYX in Philo, CA
19 Broadway in Fairfax, CA
we were up and out the door at a decent hour for the first day of our run – although i can’t say that it was a terribly restful night…there was construction going on literally right outside the window of our room…and while that sort of thing typically wouldn’t bother me, i didn’t block it out as well as i normally would. as such, it was a pretty fitful nights’ sleep. at some point, though, i woke up and realized that i didn’t hear it anymore….i’d find out later that this was because it had started raining at some point in the dead of the night, and they’d packed it in as a result of the weather.
we stopped at a UPS store in healdsburg, CA to pick up some gear that we’d had shipped out ahead of the run, and started making our way to Philo to KZYX – where we’d played during our last run as well. it sits on the side of a mountain in a small, nondescript building, but the folks there have been great to the band, and we’re always happy to see them. when we stopped in, though, there was some kind of an issue with a power outage and they were running on generator power- but there was more than enough in the tank for us to be able to get through our visit without any issues…so, as is something of our custom, we were in and out and back on the road in pretty short order.
the radio station in Philo was relatively close to our old stomping grounds in Navarro, so we stopped in to see dave at the navarro general store and grab a late lunch…we were a little crunched for time, otherwise i’d have made a point to stop in and see david dart at his shop – but it wasn’t meant to be on this particular leg of the trip. it was a total ambush on our part, though – dave had no idea we were coming, and it was great to be able to surprise him the way we did. it seemed as though he was genuinely happy to have seen us, and i hope he knew that it was important to us to make sure we stopped in while we were there. (i also snagged one of those odd little ice cream/cookie sandwich things that are apparently local to NorCal…i can’t remember off the top of my head what it was called, but i had discovered them on the last trip, and they made an impression.)
i was trying to change strings on the two lap steels that i’d brought along as we were driving the winding, “intestine-like” stretch of route 128 (to borrow bud’s euphemism for the road) – and to say that it was challenging to change strings in the back of the van as we were driving would be something of an understatement. i’m a little surprised that i didn’t poke anyone in the eye with a stray end of a string as we were driving…it was pretty crazy to try and pull that off as we were driving on that stretch of road. i kept thinking of those Lincoln car commercials that i used to see when i was a kid, where they’d have a jeweler trying to cut a diamond while sitting in the back of a Lincoln Continental driving over rumble strips – i’d love to have seen that dude try to do anything in the back of this van while twisting and turning down the road we were on.
Fairfax seemed like a pretty cool place, although in fairness it probably isn’t a good idea to judge any of these towns when you come in under cover of night and it’s been raining – but the venue was very professionally run with a great soundman, and we were in and set up pretty quickly. once we’d gotten through soundcheck, we decided to go find dinner down the street from the venue. we settled on a small cafe right down the street, since we didn’t have a great deal of time…and we were all really feeling the effects of the time change and the travel by this point as well. by the time we got back to the club, i was dying for a nap, but it was pretty close to showtime. bud tried to grab a few winks on a bench seat over behind where the soundboard was located – don’t know if he was successful or not.
we played that night like a bunch of guys who were running on fumes – we had a few high spots, but it wasn’t one of our best sets…we got through it relatively unscathed, though – no major messes or glitches, just not terribly inspired. i tried to follow bud’s example between sets and get a nap in, but it just wasn’t happening…but we got through it. afterward, as we were loading out, we saw this guy who’d been walking up and down the streets all night….his hair probably hadn’t been washed since labor day, he had a distinctive smell (i’m trying to be nice, for a change), and his coat was perpetually half-hanging off…one of the folks who worked at the bar said hello to him and asked him how he was doing, and he went into this rant about how he’d gotten thrown out of every bar on the street that was still open, because “nobody would give him a microphone and let him sing his song.”
welcome to california, boris garcia.
Caspar, CA (just outside Mendocino): the Caspar Inn
we’d been staying at the good nite inn in roehnert park (just off highway 101) for the first couple of nights…since we had lodging at the next gig, we checked out of our lovely rooms overlooking the Taco Bell just off the highway there, and headed towards mendocino county…one of my favorite places on the planet. i had remembered seeing calendars for the Caspar Inn on the wall at our favorite bar (Dick’s Place), so we were aware of it when we’d come through back in june.
let me tell you straight away, where this place is concerned…if you ever have occasion to play here, don’t be swayed too heavily by your first impressions as you pull up to the place. i feel pretty strongly that you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as we were.
first of all, it sits right on the ocean…you can stand on the porch and see the water not quite a hundred yards away. BUT – it looks very much like those kinds of places that you hear about south of the mason-dixon line…with the jukebox and the chicken wire and the perpetual smell of urine. and, to be fair, it is a bit of a roadhouse, but not in the stereotypical negative sense. Bobby, the proprietor, was being talked up to us well before we even arrived.
As has become tradition – we met someone from Philadelphia there. we stood on the porch and in the street and watched the sun drop into the pacific ocean – which was amazing to begin with – and we stayed and chatted with a handful of characters that we met that night…including a fellow with southern roots named Madrone (or so he said, anyway) and his 26 year old girlfriend with orange hair…the husband and wife bartender (Madrone tells us that he actually dressed as her husband for halloween once – by drawing his tattoo on his arm with a magic marker and decking himself out in Cubs attire) and another lovely gentleman who fell asleep at the bar and managed to stay conked out while people stacked cans of Red Bull and other assorted items on his head for a good ten minutes or so. it really is the kind of place where you feel as if you’ve been coming there for years, even if you’ve only been there for an afternoon. after a few beers and some laughs, we all piled into the van and drove over to the venue for load in.
first of all – BEST LOAD IN OF THE TOUR. we backed the van right up to a pair of double doors that opened right onto the stage. the only way load-in gets easier than that is if we just play in the van itself. and bobby totally and completely lived up to his rave reviews, not only providing lodging upstairs at the inn for the band, but also by feeding us and making abalone for us between sets.
the crowd was sparse, largely due to the fact that the area radio station that has championed the band for years (KOZT) had another event scheduled for that night, and they typically don’t cross promote against station sponsored events. our promoter couldn’t even buy advertising for the show – they wouldn’t sell it to him. still, the folks who showed up were enthusiastic, and we know we’ll have a home there down the road. we played much better than we did the night before, and had a great time hanging out with bobby and company afterward. one of the patrons did manage to break my heart after the show by telling me that he’d just come from a show at another room where Gene Parsons was playing (who, as most of you probably know, was the drummer for the byrds during the clarence white era and the inventor of the Parsons-White string bender). apparently, gene lives in the area and plays around town relatively often.
bummer. another missed opportunity. not complaining, though… 🙂
aside from the load-in being awesome, they also provide accomodations, as the inn is actually set up as such – it was one of the only times during this run that we’d have our own rooms on the run, and i took full advantage of the opportunity to head up to the room early and get some sleep – as i knew we’d be getting on the road somewhat early the next day.
Ukiah, CA – the barn at the nelson family vineyards with great american taxi and the david nelson band
this was the first of a handful of shows that we would be doing with the david nelson band, along with great american taxi, the band fronted by former leftover salmon mainstay vince herman. this was a long show – starting early in the afternoon and going until well after dark, with boris opening at around 2pm, then the taxi boys followed by the nelson band.
we were up relatively early in Caspar to get on the road, and we arrived in Ukiah around noon…tim steigler, the soundman and all-around ringmaster for all things technical for the nelson folks, was already on site and had loaded in the system and was in the process of setting up when we got there. the setting for this show was a large barn on the site of a family vineyard that was established in 1952 – they’ve been having shows there for some time, and it’s become a pretty successful site. in fact, they’re one of the stops on the new riders of the purple sage run that starts right after the nelson band finishes this run of dates. it was a beautiful day to be out and about…a little colder than the guys were expecting it to be, but hey – it is november, after all.
we unloaded the gear that we’d be using (we were using mookie siegel’s keyboard rig and pete’s bass rig, but our own amps and drumkit for our set), and got out of the way for the most part. the boys from GAT showed up not long after we did, and did the same…now, usually, the way things work is that the headliner sets up first, soundchecks first, and it goes in reverse order up through the opener, who sets up last and plays first (obvious enough). with this crew, though, the only act on the bill that got anything actually resembling a soundcheck was the opener – tim had worked with the musicians in the nelson crew enough that – it would appear, anyway – he seems to be able to dial in the line check that happens during the opener’s soundcheck to the extent that there doesn’t appear to be much need for the other acts to bother with soundcheck at all…and i didn’t hear a single complaint from anyone else about monitors or sound for any of the gigs we did with timmy at the helm.
i scouted the stage when we got there and decided, without any real deliberation, that i’d just stick with the lap steel for this show. there just wasn’t enough space on stage for the pedal steel – and since it was something of an amended set,. it didn’t strike me as a huge compromise to just stick with the lap steel for the set. as such, my setup was ridiculously quick – plug in the amp, connect the volume pedal, the sparkle drive and the tuner, and go. timmy had us dialed in (with his usual calm demeanor) in record time, and we blazed through our set – which felt as though it was over before it started…it flew by pretty quickly.
the boys from great american taxi took the stage next, and since we’d already done all the line checks, they were on and roarin’ pretty quickly. vince, the frontman of the band, is one of those larger-than-life characters…he’s a big, gregarious, perpetually smiling teddy bear who just so happens to play and sing his ass off. barry sless from the nelson band sat in with them on pedal steel on a few songs, and added a nice touch.
while they were playing, i was walking around in back of the barn, where everyone had backed their vans in to load onto the stage…it was as close to a backstage area as you could expect in a festival setting, which was essentially what it was, although it wasn’t actually closed off. there were several old trucks out back, including a classic white freightliner tractor with a flatbed trailer on it…and for some reason that i can’t quite put my finger on, i found myself strangely attracted to this thing. i spent a good portion of taxi’s set lying on the trailer with a sierra nevada, using my bag as a pillow and looking up at the expanse of tree branches over my head and just soaking it all in. jeff wandered by after i’d been lying there for a while and told me that “i looked as though i belonged there” – which, i guess i could assume, would mean that even after all this time, i still have “the burly stature of a truck driver” (as was pointed out a decade and a half ago in a review of our mutual angels…if the boot fits, i guess).
and…about that sierra nevada pale ale…that’s just plain good stuff, right there. there was a full cooler backstage, and while i normally don’t really imbibe during shows – i wasn’t driving, and we’d already turned in our set…so there really wasn’t anything to keep me from having one or two – so i did. there wasn’t a garbage can in the vicinity of the cooler, so i kept putting the tabs in my pocket as i’d open them…i wasn’t keeping them for any other reason but to refrain from throwing them on the ground or anything of that nature, and didn’t give it a second thought at the time.
one of the things that i truly love about doing these shows is the humanity parade that you experience in the wake of the nelson band – and i suppose that could be taken in a negative light, but the truth is – these are wonderful people. the stereotype that surrounds these folks is unfair in a lot of instances – these are people who share a common love of music and community, and they understand in a way that most other people are content to ignore just how much one enhances the other. a lot of these folks come to these shows as much to enjoy one another as to enjoy the music, and a lot of them have been friends for decades – and have history with one another going back that far.
but while a lot of the folks who follow the music are veterans, there’s certainly evidence of a healthy influx of newcomers, as well. one of the longest conversations i had during the course of the day was with a girl who was probably my daughter jayda’s age who had moved out to a commune in northern california from her home in oklahoma – her mother didn’t really make any effort to understand (and certainly didn’t approve) of her choices, and she seemed as though she was trying to make peace with that – but i could tell that the weight of her mom’s disapproval colored her enthusiasm for where she was trying to steer her life. talking to her made me sad in a way that i didn’t fully realize until the conversation was over…because for all the misgivings i might have about some of the decisions made by my kids, or whatever worries i have about their direction – or lack of such – in life might take them at times, i’ve tried never to be the person that i know this girl sees her mother to be. it’d crush me to think that my kids saw me the way this girl saw her mother – i mean, i know we’re not as close as we could be at times, but i do hope that they understand that i’m in their corner…and that i’m not the kind of person who would condemn a choice that they were passionate about just because it didn’t fit with my own expectations of them. that’s just tragic…for both of them.
this was the first of several shows we’d be doing with the nelson gang, and they were – as always – ridiculously good. i ventured to the side of the stage from time to time to take a look at the action on the stage, but i spent a big chunk of time sitting on the flatbed, in the dark and staring up at the stars, listening to them from my vantage point on the back of the truck…it was pretty transcendent.
i walked back into the barn with jeff and bob to get a pizza at the food stand inside, and we met a couple of french kids who wanted to know if we had “rollings papehr” – which i didn’t, of course…nor did anyone else on hand (officially, anyway) and i grabbed another sierra nevada to go with my pizza on the way out of the back of the barn.
the guys played a phenomenal set, and we walked around the barn and the road outside chatting with people – including one girl who professed to be from reading, and said that the power was still out at home as of earlier that day when she talked to her mom…unbelievable.
as the folks wandered back to their cars to head off into the night, mark keys (the promoter) gathered everyone together and marched them out a side road to a house adjoining the vineyard, where there was a huge spread of food – we got to know vince a little better, as well as jim (the guitarist) and chad staehly, who also works quite a bit with todd snider – so we hit it off on that level, since i’ve been a fan of todd’s work for a long time. our hosts were incredibly gracious, the food was excellent…and after a while, we loaded into the van to head to the hotel.
i assumed, as such, that the night was over.
i assumed wrong.
when we got to the hotel – the discovery inn in ukiah – the colorado boys had already gotten there, and there was a small posse in the parking lot, playing guitar and singing…the hotel parking lot was something of a courtyard setup, with the rooms surrounding a common lot with a building in the middle that housed a sauna and the hot tubs. bud handed out our room keys after checking in at the desk, so as soon as i threw my stuff into my room, i came back outside to see if any of the other guys were planning on participating in any extracurricular activities, if you will…bob had called mark to see if there was going to be a “hang” after we all got back to the hotel, but bob went up to his room after we got back to the hotel. stephe and i were outside in the courtyard, waiting to see if anyone else was going to trickle out, but after a while, we walked over to where the parking lot kids were and said hello…we stood there with them for a while, until we saw two girls over by the fence surrounding the building where the hot tubs were – one trying to boost the other over the fence. i grabbed my room key from my pocket, went over to the gate, and swiped my card through the reader to let them in. i hadn’t been in there, and had no idea until we walked in that there were hot tubs in this building…i had initially thought that maybe it was an indoor swimming pool or something like that, but when we walked in, there were four separate hot tubs, plus a sauna and a waterfall thingy that was noisy as hell in the main room. the two french kids that were looking for “rollings paper” at the show were there, plus a handful of girls of widely varying ages and a couple of guys affiliated with various bands…in varying states of undress.
i looked over at stephe, and smiled…and kicked off my shoes. “what are you doin’, man?” he says. “i’m going in, dude.”
“damn right, i am, dude,” i told him. “dude, shit like this just don’t happen every day. this ain’t the company christmas party, man…and it’s not like i’ll be back in this position anytime soon. i’m in.”
and before i had time to reconsider, i shed the lions’ share of my clothes and got in the water. i left stephe standing there contemplating whether or not this was something he was interested in or not.
i just settled in with some folks i didn’t really know and struck up a conversation…the one (older) woman in the tub that i got into was wearing a bathing suit, and i asked her if she was just being optimistic when she packed, or if she’d been here before. “this is california,” she said. “i never leave home without my bathing suit.”
to answer the obvious questions, yes – there was nakedness involved. but it wasn’t the typical, overtly sexual rock and roll nakedness…it was just a group of people hanging out with one another, some of whom happened to be naked. one girl, sitting on the edge of one of the other tubs, was strumming a ukelele…there were some things being smoked that might have been of questionable legality in other states, but mostly it was just conversation that was being exchanged.
so…while it certainly seemed like a rock and roll kinda thing in principle, we were a pretty boring lot.
and, after about 45 minutes or so, the room started to clear out…leaving stephe and myself – and the two french dudes.
now, if i left any doubt earlier, their english was – well, a little rough. their intentions were good, but i had a hard time understanding them…and the roar of the waterfall in the room only complicated matters, as i could barely hear them in the first place. so…after another fifteen minutes or so, i started contemplating the notion of getting up out of the tub and getting my clothes on and heading back to the hotel room. we left the friendly french guys there by themselves and i headed over to dry off and hit the hay…it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 3am or so. my hair felt like i’d been using a chlorine-based conditioner of some sort, and i was still a little buzzed from the influx of various sierra nevada products during the course of the – hey…i’d been putting bottle caps into my pocket as i went during the course of the night – how many did i have, after all?
i emptied my pockets onto the desk in my room and counted them up.
no wonder i was feeling very little restraint about jumping into the hot tub. it was a pretty high number.
needless to say, i had no problem at all falling asleep.
Arcata, CA – at HumBrews with great american taxi
we got up pretty early, considering how late we’d be up the night before – the plan was that we were stopping at this little diner in willets called ardell’s before we started the drive north to arcata for the show that night.
we actually bumped into mookie and jim lewin from taxi outside the front desk area of the hotel before we left…we chatted for a few seconds before we pulled out, and set out for the drive…which, from where we sat was roughly three hours. sadly, ardell’s was closed, so we settled on the country skillet – which, frankly, was just fine with me. great little spot, with awesome people-watching.
the drive up to arcata was almost exclusively on highway 101 – which very well might be my favorite stretch of road in the country. the scenery of the countryside in that part of the country just never gets old…i never tire of looking out the window on that stretch of road. i’ve tried in the past to take pictures out the window of the van, and i still do – but still photographs just don’t go very far, in terms of capturing the actual experience of being in the midst of that part of the country. we decided to take a short scenic detour through the humboldt redwoods state park – and if you’ve never been through that part of the country, let me tell you…it’ll help you put a lot of things in perspective.
we pulled the van over and piled out onto the side of the road at a point where there was enough room to get the van safely off the winding, two lane stretch of road, and i grabbed my camera and walked up the hill through the enclave of trees, alternately staring up at the sky through the long, arrow-straight giant trunks with tufts of leaves at the very top…and pulling my chin down and taking in the sheer breadth of the trees at the point closest to the ground. across the road, there was one giant fallen trunk that dropped away from the road and into the forest. i walked over, and followed the length of the tree to a point further up the shaft where it was realistically possible to climb onto it, and walked back up the length of it to the point closest to the road where it was its largest…and also the farthest from the ground. stephe had wandered over by then, and i tossed my camera down to him so he could get a shot of me, standing in a faux triumphant pose on top of the giant tree.
after we’d been there for about fifteen minutes or so, the troops started getting restless and summoned us back to the van so we could start back up the road.
one wasted stop at a pawn shop that we passed along the road, and we were in arcata relatively early…well before the GAT boys. we stopped in and visited for a bit with the folks at the venue, and brought in the gear that we knew we’d be using (without assuming anything regarding shared backline), and walked down the alley behind the club to a small music store there in town called wildwood music to browse for a bit. i think bud might have been in the market for mandolin strings, as well, but i can’t remember. anyway, we poked around for a bit – and bob pointed out an old early 50’s fender champion lap steel to me that was in the back of the place. now, i’ve never been a fan of those things, largely because all the ones that i’ve played have been overly brittle…and this is an instrument that’s usually in need of some rolloff on the top end, no matter which brand you’re playing – i think that anything with the pickup that close to the bridge with a scale length that short is gonna bark at you in that frequency range, but the fenders have always been especially guilty of that. i tend to gravitate towards rickenbackers and gibsons, because they seem most susceptible to taming that flaw…but, of course, your mileage may vary. i know that phil madeira has one of those, and he loves his – and who am i to judge? i just play what i like, and i’ve always just kinda written them off. bob was reaching for his glasses and hovering over this thing, though…and asked me to play it for him while he looked for something to plug it into. i hadn’t bothered to bring a bar with me, because i wasn’t really shopping for anything – but i improvised with a pocket knife long enough to make sure it worked properly, and bob took it to the counter and started negotiations…turned out it was on consignment, and bob made an offer and asked the clerk to call the owner to see if he’d take it…which he did, and he did, so bob walked out with this thing. as it turned out, he was a lot less interested in the steel than he was the pickup in it – thus the reason for his thorough inspection. as it turns out, it was a flatpole telecaster pickup and harness assembly in this thing, with the original caps and the whole nine yards. so, bob left the place a happy boy…as we were walking back down the alley to the loading door, we saw vince from GAT walking towards the place, as they had just pulled in themselves. we went up to help with the load-in, and vince came walking up a few minutes later, beaming and holding his new purchase – a marshall acoustic amp. “i knew it was an acoustic amp because it’s brown,” he chuckled. “all acoustic amps are brown.”
that’s the kind of character he is. 🙂
anyway…the gig. oh, yeah, there was a gig, as i recall…
it was a monday night, so our expectations were somewhat low, but there was actually a pretty respectable crowd – when you consider the whole weeknight thing. and we played our asses off. it wasn’t our crowd, but they were pretty enthusiastic and supportive, and we got a lot of positive feedback from the folks i spoke to after our set. GAT tore it up…their set included a cover of pure prairie league‘s kansas city southern, which i definitely got a kick out of – they played their asses off for a solid two hours, and encored with willin’ before calling it a night.
after the show, i chatted a bit with some of the folks in the crowd as they were leaking out the door before heading into the green room – the smoke in the green room was absolutely stifling…it was actually hard to see the walls in there. i passed a “howdy” message along to vince from a mutual buddy of ours who’d asked me to say hello to him via facebook, lonesome larry williams from WWHP-FM in farmer city, illinois and we all chatted for a while…there were remnants of stuff lying about, including a dish full of cookies. i grabbed one – they were some distant relative of oatmeal raisin, i believe, although my memory fails me – and didn’t taste anything contraband in it, so i had another one as we were all standing and chatting…and grabbed another one on the way out the door. the third one, i noticed after i got into the van, tasted…well, a little funny, but i hadn’t noticed anything in the other two, so i kinda wrote it off. didn’t give it another thought.
we got to our hotel for the night, loaded the equipment into the room, and stephe and i settled in – bob stopped by to chat for a bit, and i got up to get my laptop out of my bag, and immediately felt – weird. not dizzy, but not really solid, either.
i sat back down, and bob says, “what’s wrong?”
“i don’t know, man,” i told him. “the room just took a lap or two around the track or something. i don’t feel sick or anything, but that was a little odd. i don’t know what happened.”
and it didn’t go away when i sat back down, either.
bob knows all too well that i refrain from smoking as a rule – not because i have a problem with people who do, or anything of that nature…i don’t take issue with it at all. i just don’t smoke weed. never have, and never had any real desire to. it’s not the use of the stuff that i have an issue with, but the actual act of smoking that is the barrier for me. i just can’t do it. in fact, the only times i’ve ever encountered the stuff was via either cookie or brownie ingestion…but neither of those times did i feel as i did in this particular instance. suffice to say, it freaked me out a bit.
so when we narrowed it down to the cookies via the process of elimination, bob says to me, “did you see vince eat any of the cookies?”
“yeah,” i replied. “i think he had one of them.”
“well, here’s a general rule that you might want to abide by,” bob said. “if you see vince do something, you probably want to do less of it than he did. you sure as hell don’t want to do more.”
and with that, bob retreated to his room, and i crawled into bed with my clothes on and pulled the covers up tightly around my chin. the ceiling of the hotel room (which was covered in that wonderfully appealing textured paint) appeared to be changing colors, not unlike those ridiculous lamps that you can buy at the mall…and the ceiling itself seemed as though it were only inches from my face, while the window – from which i was separated only by the edge of my bed and a small table and chair – looked as though it were at the end of a long hallway. but it was just as well, as i couldn’t keep my eyes open for long periods of time without feeling nauseous, anyway. when i closed them, though, the whole pink floyd laser eyelid light show began…the strangest assortment of passing colored patterns that i’d ever seen. i lay there, waiting to fall asleep and convinced that i was going to die there in this hotel room on the other side of the country, thousands of miles from my family and friends…i remember thinking to myself that, at the very least, i will have died doing what i personally consider to be my lifes’ work, and there’s at least that – but that there’s tons of unfinished business on my plate and that i can’t resign myself to that just now. i remember repeatedly moving my toes under the covers just to make sure that i was still inhabiting my largely numb carcass, and wiggling my fingers from time to time. after stephe turned out the light to go to sleep, i’d open my eyes on occasion and found that the nausea had subsided, but that i still didn’t trust my eyes, in terms of what i was taking in.
i have no idea what my final thoughts might have been before i finally fell asleep the first time, but i must’ve gone from sleep to some state of semi-conscioiusness several dozen times…i think. i mean, i might have been dreaming that i was waking up, for all i know…but i doubt it. the next morning, i managed to haul myself up from the bed, put some clothes on, and gather my posessions into the back of the van as everyone was loading in – i stood outside the van for a good long while, almost certain that i was going to leave a souvenir of our visit in the parking lot before we left, but i managed to clear my head and put the urge to barf behind me before getting in the van. bob relinquished the shotgun position to me for a time, just in case the urge were to revisit me, but it wasn’t an issue after that initial near-miss.
fucking cookies. i shoulda just hunted down that 24 hour pizza place like chad did and none of this would’ve happened to begin with.
the boys from GAT were on their way north, to applegate oregon and one of my favorite places on earth – the applegate river lodge in applegate, oregon (boris played there on our last run, back in june). we had a down day, though – and 330 miles (250 of which would be on highway 101) to cover, heading south from arcata to san jose, where we’d be settling in for the next couple of nights.
i was never so thankful to be spending the entire day in the car.
notable on this trip, though, was a stop in sebastopol and a visit with bill krinard – founder and mastermind behind two rock guitar amplifiers. bill had a fully restored nash rambler sitting in front of the house…and the visit would’ve been worthwhile if that had been all we’d seen. the guys dropped stirner and i at bill’s house and went searching for food, and bill invited us in to the laboratory.
i wasn’t really prepared for the labratory. it was two walls full of amazing guitars, and a ridiculous assortment of amplifiers – a few oddballs and stragglers, but largely two-rock creations…some production models, some amps that were in for tune-ups from a few notable players (one that belonged to steve kimock and one that belonged to john mayer), and a thing or two that were one-off creations that didn’t have labels…one, in particular, was a replica of the dumble circuit in david lindley’s personal dumble amp.
bill brought it into the room and hooked it up and bob handed me the cable…and turned it up nice and loud.
i played david lindley’s solo from shaky town (on the running on empty album) and simply could not believe my ears. this amp was just plain unbelievable.
sadly, we didn’t have a ton of time, as it was only a matter of time before the guys got back (bearing food…one of the best burritos i’ve ever had, if i do say so myself), and we had to get down the road, to hopefully arrive at a decent hour with our hosts.
but the sound of that amp is still ringing in my ears.
Berkeley, CA – live on David Gans’ radio program on KPFA-FM
Let me just say this – David Gans is one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met.
And no, not just because he’s done nice things for the band – he’s just a genuinely good soul. An easy guy to talk to, sincerely interested in his friends’ lives, and a gentle soul.
For the uninitiated, David is the Dick Clark of the Grateful Dead nation – David hosts the nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Hour, which can be heard on stations in just about every state of the union as well as shows on Sirius/XM radio and – pertinent to our itinerary, on KPFA in Berkeley…the town that Stirner calls “the left-wing, hippie radical epicenter of the universe”. We’d gotten into town later than we’d originally planned, largely because we had taken our time in getting up and out of the house that morning because we were all tired as hell…but as such, it was pretty dark, so there wasn’t much to distinguish Berkeley from most other cities under cover of night. We stopped at Trader Joe’s to pick up a little something to eat (which can be a little daunting, in terms of finding something to carry out to the van and devour right away) and then headed over to the station.
how do you know you’re in the lobby of a radio station in the “left-wing, hippie radical epicenter of the universe”?
well, for one, they have an actual altar in the lobby with tributes and notes and the like for folks who’ve passed on who’d either worked there, or were friends of the station…and you’d have to be pretty callous to stand there in front of this monument and not be moved. these are people who genuinely care about one another.
so we loaded in at the appointed time – our gig this evening was an actual hour-long live performance, playing to an invited audience as our set was broadcast over the air.
the two folks working for the station in a technical capacity were really on top of their game…we’re not an easy band to mic up or soundcheck in a “hurry up” situation, and sometimes these kind of things…well, let’s just say that we’re a lot easier when there’s plenty of time, space, and inputs. 🙂 nonetheless, though, we managed to get set up and ready to go literally right under the wire – we narrowly escaped a few seconds of dead-air at the top of the show. that’s how close it was – but we played out of the show intro and the rest of the set, plus the interview, went really well. David was the usual gracious host, and the post-set reviews that came in via text and facebook were pretty positive.
i say this a lot….maybe too much…but i just love this part of the country. it’s a perfect storm of the people, the geography, the mood, the weather, the roads and highways, the scenery – all of it. and even under the cover of darkness, berkeley is a wonderful place.
KRSH-FM in Santa Rosa, CA and San Francisco, CA – The Connecticut Yankee
the boys had been to “The Krush” before, on one of their previous jaunts, but i never had – the station has been a pretty staunch supporter of the band, and – ironically enough – the jock who’d be interviewing us also played guitar in a band called The THUGZ (which, in a decidedly non-hiphop twist, is an acronym for Tribal Hippie UnderGround Zone) – who’d be appearing with us later in the week at the River Theater in Guerneville.
on the drive out, the boys decided they wanted to stop just outside Petaluma for a bite at some little hole in the wall place that served Uzbekistani food or some other such nonsense…and, well, you know i ain’t havin’ none o’ that, so i left them there and took a walk a few blocks up the road and found a great little roadside burger stand and had a great organic, grass-fed burger and, since i hadn’t heard from the boys yet, kept walking up the street and around town for a bit, taking pictures and enjoying a rare moment of solitude before bob called me to pick me up so we could head up the road.
the radio show was a bit more routine than the previous nights’ excursion in Berkeley – it was more of what had become typical of our radio hits…a live interview interspersed with a couple of songs performed acoustically. and from there, we made what would be my first ever trip into San Francisco.
the gig itself, at a small corner bar-ish place called the Connecticut Yankee, was essentially a tip of the hat to our esteemed publicist, Dennis McNally, who lived nearby and this gig was more or less an opportunity for Dennis to come hear the band without making it too inconvienent for him. but – with it being a bar and all – load-in was late, and they didn’t want to see us even in the same neighborhood until sometime after 8:30 or so. which, frankly, was fine with me…while there was a bit of enigma attached to the notion of playing in san francisco, i’ve played this place several thousand times.
so, after visiting early and getting the predictable response from the bar owner, we trekked back out into the city…we visited the Haight-Asbury section of town and went to Amoeba Records (which left our resident Vinyl Junkie, steve, literally speechless. it was that cool.) we took a walk up Haight street a ways as well, stopped into a very cool music store for a few minutes and kinda took in the “south streetness” of the area for a bit before heading back over to the gig.
with absolutely no offense intended to the good folks at the Yankee, it was easily the worst gig of the tour. anemic audience, and a tiny stage with so little room that i ended up sitting on my amplifier to play, because there wasn’t room for a chair or a stool. everyone was up each others’ ass, and it was no fun whatsoever. Dennis and his wife seemed to enjoy the first set, and some folks trickled in later who were really supportive and seemed to enjoy the band – but i won’t be disappointed if we don’t play there again.
Berkeley, CA – Ashkenaz with David Gans and the David Nelson Band
so this was the day that we were gonna do the makeup visit to Subway Guitars in Berkeley prior to our show…we’d missed our opportunity on Wednesday, simply because we had so much on our plate, and we hadn’t exactly gotten an early start. we had a 5pm load-in for this show, and we were all up and in the van by 12:30, so i didn’t really foresee any problems in making it happen today. bob needed to stop by a UPS store, and there was one located on the way out of town, right next to a CVS, so we all decided to mill about and grab some stuff that we needed (i replenished my toothpaste supply and bought a brush and a diet coke, everyone else came back to the van with similar small plastic bags) and we started down the interstate towards Berkeley. since steve obviously had a limited interest in visiting subway, we dropped him off on the block between the amoeba record store and rasputins – again, he was like a kid who just woke up on christmas morning. we made one impulse stop at a pawn shop and then started across to cedar street towards Mecca.
my expectations were somewhat low…i’d been a regular visitor to fatdawg’s website and i knew what kind of store it was likely to be. i’d conjured images in my head of a smallish place with walls and ceiling lined with guitars and a funky vibe…and that’s exactly what it was. bob brought his strat, as he was considering having the 5-way switch replaced, and i brought my national steel along, as i’d been having some issues with the amphenol connector (or more likely, the cable itself that came with the steel). i took a deep breath and we opened the door and walked in.
it was even smaller than i’d expected – with guitars hanging in three rows on the walls all around the room, and old archtops and acoustics suspended from the ceiling, and all manners of paraphenelia literally all over the room. guitar parts, various and sundry necks and bodies, as well as books and various flyers and such adorned every surface of the place.
i felt like i’d died and gone to heaven.
the first thing that caught my eye was a danelectro DC-style body with a telecaster bridge and pickup and a cool old P-90 style pickup in the zone between where a neck pickup and a middle pickup might’ve gone, painted a copper color with a longish baritone neck on it…i plugged it into a bass amp they had sitting there in the store and it sounded AMAZING. there was another single-cutaway hollowbody hanging next to it with a single rickenbacker lap steel pickup in it that was less impressive when plugged in, but quite visually striking…and there were more, and more, and more…everywhere i turned, there was something else that i wanted to play that i couldn’t reach.
after we’d been there a while and had chatted for some time with the illustrious fatdawg himself (who came in just after we did), a slight, unassuming elderly black gentleman walked in and went up the steps in the back corner…i thought he looked familiar, but i couldn’t place him. after he’d gone upstairs, i asked FD, “was that…was that freddie roulette?”
fatdawg seemed somewhat shocked that i knew who he was…when he came back down, he introduced me to him – but he was on his way out the door, he had to go drop someone off at church, but he’d be back in just a few minutes…and he’d bring his guitar.
i literally could not believe that this was unfolding right in front of me.
we were discussing my amphenol connector situation with another repair guy who worked there, and were entertaining the notion of trying to find one at an electrical parts place in the neighborhood – but freddie walked back in not long after that with a gig bag over his shoulder, a tiny amplifier, and a small pedalboard. he proceeded to pull out a national 8 string lap steel, plug it in, and start absolutely wailing – playing standards like georgia on my mind and sleepwalk and stuff of that nature – crazy bar slant chords that, from a logical standpoint, should not have worked in any way, shape, or form, but he was making them work – wild slides up and down the fretboard, crazy chord melody stuff…all the while staring down at his fretboard with his omnipresent pipe dangling just over his lap the entire time. it was as if he was aware there was anyone else in the store at all. he must’ve played for half an hour..while he was playing, bud and jeff showed up to pick us up for load-in, and they stayed and watched for the longest time…and freddie was still playing when we left to scramble for the van, to pick steve up and head to the venue for load-in.
to say i wasn’t ready to leave would have been an understatement. plus, i never found out what he wanted for the danelectro baritone.
we got to the venue to find the familiar Ryder rental truck parked in front of the venue, and we were lucky enough to score a parking spot right in front of it. it had begun to rain, and i don’t think any of us were that interested in dealing with carrying our stuff any further in the rain than we had to. when we walked in, tim steigler was already largely set up for the show and ready for us to load-in.
the venue was impressive – a very large floor, a spacious stage, mirrors along the wall on one side – really a wonderful space. the walls behind the stage were covered with protest posters, some clearly used on the street, some from ages past, and it created a somewhat surreal vibe in the place. now, fatdawg had told us a bit about the place and its original owner, david nadel – david was shot in the doorway of the club as he was leaving and died two days later – under what could kindly be called suspicious circumstances.
now, let me say something here – we all hear people say, sometimes ad nauseum, that people’s spirits live on, that they can feel their presence, that they’re still watching over them, blah blah blah….let me tell you something.
within the walls of this room, david nadel is fucking immortal.
there are many folks who knew him, who worked for him and with him, who clearly had a huge amount of respect for him as a human being – who still work here, who still come here, and there are ample reminders of him throughout the place…it’s a huge testament to who he was and what kind of human being he was…and to the legacy he left in his wake.
so there was an immediate air of celebratory reverence in the air in the room, and the air was a little different from the moment we got there. the PA was already up and ready, and we were able to start setting up for soundcheck pretty much right away – and as has become the norm when we work with this particular crew, tim steigler had us set up and dialed in with what seemed like no effort whatsoever…we had great monitors, the room sounded phenomenal…and it was already starting to feel like it was going to be – well, one of those nights.
i walked across the street to chipotle and grabbed a burrito and a corona while the rest of the guys went for Thai food, and came back just a few minutes before showtime…david gans was opening the show, and we’d worked with david during our last tour at a co-bill in sebastopol in addition to having done the radio show together earlier in the week – so we were really looking forward to this gig.
we came up to play with david for his last song, and literally from the minute we kicked in behind him, it was obvious that something had kicked up a notch…it was palpable. and when david handed off the stage to us and we kicked into our set, people were up at the front of the stage and dancing and it just pushed us over the edge. we played one of the most amazing sets that i think we’ve ever done.
afterward, i had a great conversation with one of the folks who’s worked here almost from the beginning of the room, who knew david, and was something of a historian where the place was concerned…it was a pretty magical evening, to say the least. lots of hugs and goodwill and then – back into the van to go grab a few hours’ sleep.
Guerneville, CA – the river theater
the DJ who hosted us at KRSH in santa rosa (andre) is also the guitarist in a band called the Thugz (which stands for Tribal Hippie UnderGround Zone – hardly a typical name for a jam band, but who are we to judge?) – and we were playing with them on the bill at this particular show. Guerneville was the furthest north we’d be playing since coming south from arcata on tuesday in the wake of the cookie debacle – and since we were playing in chico the next night, we were staying somewhere along the highway after the show and getting up early to head to chico the next day.
it had started raining as we were driving towards the show, but by the time we got there, it was coming down pretty steadily – enough that it was hard to really see much of what guerneville was like…it’s a river town, and home of the Russian River Blues Festival…as well as the river theater.
we pulled in back of the place to load in up the ramp, and threw open the van doors and started rolling our gear up the ramp to the open door that led into the side entrance of the hall…i walked in for the first time and stopped in my tracks.
this place was…well, different.
no, not just different. this place was – well, disturbing and amusing at the same time.
it looked like what would’ve happened if bill graham had hired stanley kubrick to direct one of his new years’ eve parties at the fillmore west.
there were various props hanging from the ceiling, mostly stars and planets – with the stray torso here and there. a ten foot tall silver male figure stood atop a speaker enclosure. a mockup of the letters that adorn the hollywood hills floated atop the main downstairs bar. there were various faux egyptian relics strewn about, mixed with seven foot tall gingerbread men, a giant bag of popcorn, and a life-size ice cream cone. part star wars, part the ten commandments, and part alice in wonderland, all rolled into one.
the ringleader was a fellow named jerry knight – who personified every movie stereotype of the music business mogul that we’ve all come to identify with…big smile, gregarious personality, planet hollywood satin jacket, earring – but the fact is, he was a great guy…with a huge investment in the place and a lot at stake in making the place work. it was clearly a labor of love for him, and he was very proud of what he’d managed to do up to that point…and rightly so. it’s easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions when you’re encountered with somebody like jerry, but i believe the guys’ heart is in the right place.
we arrived at roughly the same time as our partners on the bill, and the affected parties went about settling whose backline would be used for what…i set up well in back of the keyboard rig, as i was expecting to sit in with them during their set (we ended up doing three songs together, culminating with the dead’s one more saturday night), and i was set up and ready to go relatively quickly…which left me plenty of time to wander around and take pictures.
after soundcheck, we went up the street for dinner and ate at a place where a three piece power trio was playing, mostly originals…the drummer looked like doctor house, the bass player looked like ray romano, and the camoflauge-trousered guitarist looked like a strange combination of vanilla ice and henry rollins…i silently dubbed them Social Douche-tortion, and ate as quickly as i could so i could get back to the venue in time to sit in with the folks from the Thugz.
i played three songs with them, wrapping up their set playing lap steel on a cover of the dead’s one more saturday night, before we took the stage – and while we were all chilled to the bone from the lack of heat in the place (jerry had turned on a contraption that looked like a combination of a wheelbarrow and a jet engine that was hooked up to a propane tank before the doors had opened, but he apparently ran out of propane at some point, so it had a pretty limited effect), we stormed the stage and fired right into our set…the highlight of this particular night, for me, was a hyper-extended version of good home that featured the trumpet player from the Thugz, who came up for an impromptu solo during the jam in the middle of the song, which actually worked out pretty well – his timing was excellent, and he came up at the perfect point in the song for his solo. righteous.
just a couple of songs into our set, though – the dance floor (heavily populated with cowboy-hippie zombies from the beginning of the show) parted to make room for jerry and his companion, who were clearly in need of a hotel room…based on their actions on the dance floor. for a buncha guys away from home for almost two weeks, it was a bit much to bear witness to – but, hey…good for jerry. 🙂
as had become custom for me, i made a point of walking the entire floor after we finished to press the flesh, shake hands, introduce myself to folks, and make friends….but most importantly, to thank them for coming to the show. we made some friends this night, and jerry was pretty clear that he wanted us back – so it felt like a success to us.
we got back onto the 101, and found our way back to where we started – in roehnert park, at the good nite inn – right back where we started this run right after we got off the plane and into the van
Chico, CA – Manzanita Place with David Gans and the David Nelson Band
so this was it…the final night of the run, and our third show with the Nelson boys – and frankly, i was feeling a little bittersweet about it.
sure, on one level, i was ready to come home to my family – sleep in my own bed – get back to work on setting the new house in order, et cetera…but after two of these trips, getting to know the other musicians, the folks who work the shows, the wonderful souls who come to the shows and support the bands – well, there’s this wonderful family that’s grown up around this scene over the years, and it feels as though the boys in Boris have been assimilated into the family at this point. they know us by name, they take care of us on the road, they dance during our sets – and as with last time, i made it a point to walk around the hall at the end of the show to thank everyone for coming and take a few minutes to talk and get to know them. there were so many almost famous moments during the course of the night, too – sitting on a folding chair backstage listening to the headliner during the show, holding court with the guys from david’s band in the green room over a great meal, taking pictures with everybody – it was the last night of the tour for them, as well, and we all knew that it’d be a while before we got to see each other again, and…just like russell says in the movie – “nobody wants the circus to be over.”
mark keyes, the promoter who put the bigger shows together for both of the tours that i took part in, has become a dear friend…as well as tim stiegler, the FOH guy, and paul andling, the guy who was doing guitars for the band, was such a nice guy and a good sport…and, after this was all over, i found out that i totally squandered a great opportunity to pick the brain of a guy who’d spent a good chunk of his professional life working with people like T-Bone Burnett in the studio – paul. dude was just so nice, so unassuming, that he kept it under his hat the whole time.
so….yeah. that whole “parting is such sweet sorrow” thing? totally on the head for this scenario.
we got up and out the door pretty early for this run, and – while bud had done the lions’ share of the driving for this run – i got to make a cameo appearance behind the wheel for this drive. i know that when we’d gone to chico for the KZFR interview last time, the drive was a bit of a drag, but we were coming from a different direction then. this time, not so much. it was a little rainy at first, but it wasn’t the worst day we’d spent out here this run.
and, as had become the norm, timmy’s rental truck was already at the gig when we got there…they’d already started setting up the house when we arrived for load-in and soundcheck. the venue was essentially a large, open hall with no actual seating – and the house folks had put out chairs, which mark had to ask them to strike. there was a little friction between mark and the promoters as a result, and i don’t know if the douchebag that purported to run the place ever really got over it…but that was his problem more than anyone else’s. mark got the green room set up the way he wanted, he got the chairs removed as he wished, and pretty much everything else as well. the only real caveat that we had to deal with was that the room had to be cleared by a certain hour, and we had to have the stage quiet and the lights up by 10pm – which was a requirement of the township, more so than the room…and as long as we stuck to our timeline, it wasn’t going to be a problem.
load-in and soundcheck had become pretty routine by now – the Nelson guys were set up first, and we had become pretty adept at setting up around them. i usually dropped my amp in right behind david’s mesa/boogie rig, and dropped a folding chair between his amp and the drum kit. mission accomplished. and…the headliners? i don’t think they soundchecked once the whole run. and yet, they sounded phenomenal every night. and – after soundcheck, the folks started trickling in…jasper and his wife came in pretty early, with a new face – jennifer, a beautiful girl from the baltimore area who’d come out specifically for the shows. i nicknamed her “PBJ”…Paiges’ Beautiful (friend) Jess. (and yes, i did have to explain the absence of the letter “F”…i mean, the F throws off the whole acronym, ya know?)
it seems almost anticlimactic to even talk about the shows themselves – but, i’ll tell you what…it was, without a doubt, the best set i’ve ever seen the David Nelson Band turn in.
they did a version of stella blue, with pete singing, that just killed me. i was in the back, sitting by myself when the song started, and i actually walked out into the hall to get close to the stage and hear this up close…just unbelievable. the room was full of people, all dancing and swirling slowly to the song – i stood just over to one side of the stage, just behind mookie’s keyboard rig, and listened to the rest of the song with tears welling up in my eyes…an absolute textbook portrait of bittersweet, listening to these musicians i respected and admired, surrounded by this newly adopted family of mine…and knowing that we’d be on a plane in roughly 24 hours and it’d be over.
like the pros they are, the boys finished their set – with encore (“box of rain” – another tear-welling moment) – with six minutes to spare before pull-the-plug time.
the lights came up at the end of the show, and the band retreated to the green room, but i didn’t go back right away…as had become somewhat customary, most of “the hang” would move out into the hall during load-out anyway, and it didn’t feel like it was really necessary to bother with heading back to the green room right away. instead, i walked around and talked to the folks who’d come to the show for a good half-hour…including paige and jasper, who’d brought pictures of the bus he was refurbishing that he shared with me…and quite a few other handfuls of folks who’d stuck around a little longer to enjoy each other’s company. this was their family, too, after all.
lots of hugs. lots of smiles. lots of difficult goodbyes at the end of the night…followed by an especially long load-out, punctuated with more goodbye hugs.
as we pulled away (with yours truly driving again), stirner plugged his iPhone into the radio in the van and surfed through a couple of songs, until i asked him if he happened to have a copy of brokedown palace on his iPod…and, of course, he did – so we ended up listening to american beauty a couple of times through in silence in the van as we drove back to san jose for our last night on the west coast before flying out the next afternoon.
Going home, going home By the waterside I will rest my bones Listen to the river sing sweet songs To rock my soul
Fare you well, fare you well I love you more than words can tell Listen to the river sing sweet songs To rock my soul…
this run was a classic example for me of the duality of what we do. when we’re on the road and in motion, there’s literally NOTHING i’d rather be doing. but the expense of it, the drudgery of certain parts of it, the anxiety that sets in when you’re away from home and unable to deal with the things that you need to have your hands on in order to keep your life on track and running somewhat smoothly…but it’s worth it.