Sean's Tour Diary - Part 6 of 6

The Long Winters official website
Sean Nelson
Publication date: 
June 30, 2003

Sean's Tour Diary
Part 6 June 17-21

Day Twenty-Four

Tuesday, June 17
Toronto, Ontario. Horseshoe Tavern.
w/ The Trews, two other bands (sorry)
"When I asked you why Ontario, you said it sounds good on the radio."
Another day, another border crossing. An uneventful one, too, thankfully. It was a close call, actually. It looked like we were about to get the full treatment, but then our guards got called away to some urgent matter at another car, and we were waved away. While we were waiting, a small hatchback pulled up and four distinguished looking Arab men stepped out, walking ruefully towards the office inside. Nodding hello to them, I couldn't help but think how unbelievably worse the prospect of a border crossing must be for them. But enough cryptosociological pseudopolitical insights. It's time to rock the Horseshoe.
Our return, alas, is less than triumphant. After a series of shows playing with bands we know and like, tonight's show is bound to smack of anticlimax. We're back on our own, and it takes a minute to regain equilibrium. The crowd is small, but respectable, and respectful, if dispassionate. Opening band The Trews (Michael and John both thought they were awesome, by the way) brought a ton of people out, nearly all of whom left one second after the last power chord had rung dry. It's clear enough that the purpose of the set is to reacquaint ourselves not only with our music, but with each other, and our little quest. In that regard, things go really well. Despite what I said earlier about what playing to small crowds teaches you about communication, it's useful to remember that sometimes a small house gives you the chance to play just for yourself. We load out and head back stateside, bracing ourselves for a lonely haul homeward, but hoping for the best.

Day Twenty-Five

Wednesday, June 18
Pittsburgh, PA. Club Caf?.
w/ Shade
"How's my sweet Mother Russia? Dissolving, I take it, like sugar in apple juice swallows."
Pittsburgh is a wonderful surprise. I don't know how I've managed to avoid this beautiful wreck of a city in my travels, but this marks my first visit. I must say, I'm impressed. It doesn't hurt that on the way into town, we indulge a bit of R.E.M. nostalgia, firing up Reckoning and Life's Rich Pageant and being stunned at how alive those records still are, every goddamn time.
We arrive at the succinctly nouveau elegant club early, and set up for sound check. I make the mistake of leaning my keyboard amp against the back wall, only to be informed, gently but firmly, that the curtain hanging there cost $100,000 and has all kinds of fancy, fragile, programmable lights on it, so don't be leaning your keyboard amp against it. Noted. Despite the fancy trappings of the lighting rig, the monitor situation is far from ideal, but we've dealt with worse. The bar next door has Golden Tee and Megatouch2000 (Ruby edition, no less), so that's where I stay for the next couple of hours. Come showtime, after a pleasant set of shoegazer lite stylings by Shade, it's hard not to notice that there are only about 10 people in the room, but no matter. We make the command decision to play quietly rather than trying to summon the gods of rock and roll in such a cozy space, and spend the next hour trying to find a middle ground between casual and non-existent. Though the road is fraught with blues jams, we find our way to solid ground via direct communication with the nice people who have stuck around. John's chest cold has rendered him strangely euphoric, and the banter is especially lively and extensive. "Nora" is where things really come alive, even though the end spirals a bit too far towards the infinite. A couple of people shout out requests, which we honor, before closing with a risky, but ultimately heroic rendition of "Outshined."
We are hosted by Pittsburgh Paul, a very nice man who owns a truly spectacular house in the neighborhood where they filmed Wonder Boys. I think he may have been chagrined to learn how excited we were to watch his copy of Animal House, but he got his blood up and gamely stood by while Michael quoted every line and I tried to figure out which character best represented each of us. It proves trickier than I'd expected, but there's no question that Chris Caniglia, wherever he might be, will always be D-Day. And Eric is probably Flounder. You can divide me, Michael, and John by Bluto, Otter, Boone, and Hoover. Then you can go to sleep, because it's 4am.

Day Twenty-Six

Thursday, June 19
Detroit, MI. The Shelter.
w/ Grand Drive
"There's blood on the futon. There's a kid drinking fire. "
Tonight, we were supposed to open for Maria McKee, former chanteuse of Lone Justice, a favorite band of Kathy Shannon, the Westlake High senior I had the biggest crush on when I was a freshman, at least partially because she played me bands like Lone Justice on her car stereo after play practice. But Ms. McKee cancelled her show (I have no way of alerting Kathy, whom I haven't seen in 16 years), leaving us with a hole to fill. So, it's back to Detroit, and another show in the basement of St. Andrew's Hall. There's more hip-hop upstairs--this time, instead of Busta Rhymes, it's an all-white rap battle and a half-empty house. But half-empty beats the three-quatrers empty room downstairs by a mile (or at least a fraction). In the end, we play well to about 15 people, some of whom are return customers from our last show, which is gratifying. And here again, the intimacy of the show made it easy to include everyone who was there and thus included, they responded, calling out requests, which we honored, and compliments, which we graciously accepted, and not--as some bands do--with Noblesse Oblige, either; we received the kind words and applause from the audience with a deeply felt gratitude, and took from it a meaningful affirmation; the audience's enjoyment meant something important and specific. More to the point, the size of the show allowed the social master volume of the rock club to come down a click or two. It allowed the people watching to speak to the band, and the band to them, without so much stage-ness intermediating the contact. It was a show, but not in the classic sense. It was a show in a different sense, which are always important to seek out.
At the risk of coming off all fruity magical, the show tonight, which bore all the earmarks of a forgettable bummer going in, was actually a bracingly good experience, full of interestingly brief convesations with kids of advanced ages after the set, and warm interactions with the other band, a British outfit that plays long, slow, pretty country songs in the vein, perhaps of Calexico, or Giant Sand maybe? Maybe. Nice blokes, however, to a man. They hover by the beer tub and laugh about their weary travels (on buses--I know, I totally know, but I'm just saying). one that even one year ago might have felt like a body blow.
At one point, I venture upstairs to check out the battle, only to see this scrawny little biznatch of a would-be MC, pumping his sleeveless arms and reciting Beck's "Cyanide Breathmint" word for word. Faced with the strange feeling that, because I am very likely the only one in the room, nay the building, who recognizes the words, I should call this guy out, in defense of the greatness of One Foot in the Grave, I choose rather to go downstairs and drink a lot of beer. That'll show him.

Day Twenty-Seven

Friday, June 20
Chicago, IL. Schuba's
w/ Lovedrug, The Ness, The M's
"You're good at pushing me out."
This show, our first Chicago date in a year or so, is the most welcome surprise of the tour. We will be third of four bands; none of us had ever heard of the other three. Playing at Schuba's on a Friday night feels like a big deal--especially since all our previous outings in this town have been inauspicious. We show up early, enjoy a nice free lunch next door, plunder the amazing jukebox (Songs from Big Pink and Let Go!), and wander the infinitely long, sun-cooked Chicago streets until showtime. The Milwaukee contingent will be in the house tonight, along with Evan and Paula, who haven't seen us since they left Seattle.
First up is Lovedrug, a piano-led four-piece made up of young-looking kids who proceed to fully blow my mind with a sound located at the nexus of Death Cab, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Radiohead. Predictably, the singer has a voice from Valhalla. They're amazingly good. Unfortunately, they're a late addition to the bill, and must play a short, early set to a small audience. Doubly unfortunate is their encounter with the surly French sound guy, who actually pulls the plug on them just as they're launching into their last song. I'd noted this guy's petulant tendencies during sound check (it was impossible to miss), and tried a little pre-emptive Français to ameliorate his weirdly hostile attitude. At the risk of compound generalization, sound guys and French people are similar in that they both tend to be pissy--like alpha dogs and other prideful creatures, they usually treat you badly until you defer to them in some way.
Anyway, Lovedrug bears the brunt of the sound guy tendencies and the Frenchness, and to their credit, they handle the rough handling like pros. Though I'm fully prepared to be indignant on their behalf all night, I am soon floored by The Ness, a local band that has the audacity to open with-- holy shit, is that? IT IS!--"The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," en route to a progtastic, pan-instrumental set that includes at least one Rush cover (hell, they might all have been Rush covers for all the Rush I know) and a brilliantly wild-eyed energy. I look up and the room is packed. Buoyed by the crowd and the excellence of the other bands, we tear into our set like wolves. Everything goes just right and the crowd loves it. Best Chicago show ever, times a thousand. It's also a nice reversal of the expectation that the road home would be a string of downers. By the time the M's take the stage, it almost doesn't matter whether they're good or not, in my quest to deem this night the tour's triumphant climax. But then, as if to make the night perfect, they are outstanding. Another local band, this time more mellow and psychedelic, suited up, and spilling over with Brit-influenced, harmonized pop. Thank you, M's. Thank you, Ness. Thank you, Lovedrug. And sound guy, c'est vraiment degeulasse.
Whatever else, happens, tonight was a brilliant capper. Afterwards, we drive all night to Madison, and beyond, in search of a hotel vacancy, which we eventually find, at a business with the unlikely, language-slaughtering name Amerihost. (The offensiveness of the word is ameliorated somewhat by the clerk's thick cheddar curd accent; "Thanks far cal-ing Amayerihoest") Though we are exhausted, the journey proves worth it if only for the sight of a midwestern sunrise.

Day Twenty-Eight

Saturday, June 21
St. Paul, MN. Turf Club.
w/ Accident Clearinghouse.
"Tonight's the night."
By the time we reach St. Paul, John is sick and I am tired, and no one has high hopes for the show. In terms of fixtures, architecture, and general mustiness, the Turf Club appears to be under the impression that time stopped in 1963, with the unusual corollary that the room (huge) is plastered with images from every era of Neil Young's career--emphasis on Crazy Horse. I've never seen so many pictures of Neil Young in one place, not even a Neil Young movie. Not even a Neil Young picture book. The bar is like a shrine. After the initial jolt of wrapping one's head around the sheer omnipresence, the Neil effect becomes oddly soothing. He deserves it, after all. Court shows up and we have a really pleasant conversation--after the tumult of our last couple of visits, it's comforting to see him relaxing into his new environs.
The story with tonight's show--the last of the tour; Denver has been cancelled, to no one's chagrin--is that every Saturday night, a local band called Accident Clearinghouse plays three hours worth of country-western tunes for a crowd described by the sound guy/bar manager as "older." He warns us that Saturday nights at the Turf Club are probably a little different than what we're used to. In my experience, a warning like that from the sound guy means two things: turn your amps down and play music people like. We've been invited to play the first of their three sets, which is a generous offer, though a daunting one when faced with the prospect of a roomful of blue haired biddies in poodle skirts and cowboy shirts. I flash on two things: the last scene in Tender Mercies, and, almost reflexively, the Bob's Country Bunker sequence in The Blues Brothers. "We're the Good Old...Long" In a minor panic, we huddle up and try to re-configure our set to favor the slower, quieter, uh countrier numbers in the repertoire. We can pull out "Samaritan," "Mimi," "Government Loans," "Give Me a Moment," "Bride and Bridle," hell, maybe we can even try to learn "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." It's a classic manifestation of road anxiety, in which the band imagines itself in a totally alien environment and tries to visualize itself being able not only to adapt, but to somehow thrive, winning over the hearts and minds of a bunch of hillbillies in some fantasy podunk.
Inevitably, however, the fantasia passes as soon as the actual crowd shows up. Far from the geriatric line dance we'd been led to expect, the people here tonight are our age. That's what he meant by older. Sigh. But also hooray. Scrambling to un-adapt our set, we bounce around on the tiny stage, playing quietly, but really connecting with a wide array of works from the John songbook. And the crowd digs it, initially at arm's length, but soon they're right there with us. By the end of the set, it's like a family reunion, full of raucous laughs, warm feeling, and beer. Lots and lots of beer. It's another total lovefest, snatched from the jaws of embarrassing failure. And though it feels great, I'm puzzled by the disclaimer we were given earlier. What, one wonders, is so different about Saturday nights at the Turf Club? No sooner has Accident Clearinghouse started playing than I learn the answer: on Saturday nights at the Turf Club, people have come to dance. The band is slamming: three guitars, bass, fiddle, and washboard, playing song after song that sounds like some stone classic off WLAC circa 1948, but every last one of which turns out to be an original composition, except one cover, of another local band. God dang. They're on fire. They remind me of Golden Delicious, the ferocious mid-'90s bluegrass band from Portland that used to make me weep with joy every time I saw them. R.I.P.
What is so different about Saturday nights at the Turf Club? They represent the old way. Everybody is dancing, drinking, and flirting. It's utopian. It's a goddamn party. Like it used to be. Like it's supposed to be. The indie rock orthodoxy, with its prevailing mandate of joyless self-expression, sexless fashionability, and thwarted celebration, has such a wide grasp that it's easy to forget why people started going to see bands play rock in the first place: to have a good time. My own little life in rock has been a constant argument between the impulse to have fun (holy) and the desire to be taken seriously (deadly); tonight I am reminded that the best thing a band can do--the prime directive--is to entertain a roomful of people who have come out to forget their troubles for a night. It's a lesson I've been handed several times, each one refreshing and necessary. After all the consternation of the tour, wondering whether people will like our music, whether we will be appreciated by the right people for the right reasons, whether our record will be played on the radio, whether it will sell, whether we look and sound good enough to break through to the mysterious world of self-sustenance--all of it--our journey has led us to St. Paul, Minnesota, to a 50-year-old bar with pictures of Neil Young on every vertical surface, where everyone is fully involved in having the best possible time before they have to go back home to the rest of their lives. The best possible time is exactly what we all have. After the show, we hang out with the bar staff and Clearinghouse boys (princes all), drinking and smoking and exchanging flatteries until the last possible second, then, after a prolonged goodbye in which every possible hand is shaken and shaken again, and the invitations to come back anytime are accepted and affirmed, we finally drag ourselves into the blue van and begin the long ride back to Seattle.