Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Using photos and video from our Happy Hour show as a calling card, Chuck and Tom have been hustling for gigs — and so we find ourselves playing three shows in the space of two weeks. We’re back at the Bug Jar on the night after Labor Day, opening one of those mainstage four-band bills. A tight 35 minutes, all originals — every original we’ve got, in fact. We’re supporting a touring group called Community Center, who’ve come all the way from Baltimore.
We arrive early and look the room over. The stage is high, but shallow, with monitors mounted on the ceiling. But the most eye-catching thing is an inverted kitchen set — chairs, breakfast table, appliances — that has been attached to the ceiling; plates and cutlery are glued to the surface of the table. The whole setup is meant to make the viewer feel like a housefly, looking at the world-upside-down — but even a fly wouldn’t want to land in this kitchen, so crusted is the installation with grime and dust.
We chat briefly with the members of Community Center, who are wonderfully friendly and accommodating about making space for our gear. It’s hard to be open and kind when you’ve been driving all day and are trying to psych yourself up to play, but they are utterly lovely.
I also introduce myself to the boys of Access Indigo, the local blues-jam trio who will, for reasons never adequately explained, be closing the show. All I can think is: My God, they are so young. They were bound to be younger than us, of course, but they seem objectively, searingly, painfully youthful. They’re all sipping coffee; I catch myself wondering if any of them is even old enough to drink.
I change into my stage gear (I’ve ditched my straw fedora for a flat cloth cap worn backwards, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of an Italian bicycle racer) and wait for the room to fill up — but it never really does. By showtime, there are no more than a couple of dozen people in the place — and this total includes all the members of all the bands and their friends and families. As the song says, though, I’m gonna play this show even if nobody comes. Chuck strums us into “Lose My Reason,” I bang my agogo four times, and we are off.
It’s a blur. We are jammed across the tiny stage, with no room to move, and the monitor mix is swallowed up in the high ceiling. I can barely hear. I feel the walls closing in, feel myself coming apart.
Then, about fifteen feet from the stage, I spot Community Center’s lead singer and trumpet player Amanda Rife. She is swaying and dancing and somehow, incredibly, singing along by the time the chorus rolls back around. She seems miraculous. She seems impossible. She seems like a strange visitor from some other, better world where Roscoe’s Basement superfans are a thing. I feel the walls move away to give me breathing space.
I don’t want to be a creeper. I try not to stare. But I return my glance to Amanda every now and then, and she anchors me. We settle in and tear through our weird little rock ‘n’ roll songs about girl trouble and epistemic closure, about ghosts and alcoholism and nuclear dread, and slam it all home with a cover of “Friction” that feels like a statement of purpose. I’m high as a kite by the time it all ends.
But there’s no time for the afterglow. We break down and load out as much of our gear as we can while the next band — a guitar-and-drums duo called Antilock — sets up. By the time we’ve packed out, they’re nearly done. I catch the last couple songs of their set. Following Amanda’s example, I’m trying to pay it forward and cheer on the boys onstage — but I hang toward the back of the room, suddenly self-conscious and awkward. The two of them work hard, but they struggle to fill that big, appallingly empty space with just a Strat and a drumkit.
There is a moment, though, just before the end, when they rip into a cover of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” and it stones me. We all raise the horns and cry “Hail Satan!”, and then it’s done; I grab a pint of Genny and stake a place on the floor for Community Center.
I have no idea what to expect — and I don’t know what Community Center were expecting of this, my town, or what they’re thinking as they start their set, after many days on the road, and many miles from Maryland, to play for a dozen or so warm bodies in this crusty rat-hole. Their take at the door can’t have been enough to cover pizza, let alone gas to carry them to their next stop.
But if they’re having anything less than the time of their lives, they don’t let it show. The songs are huge. Not so much that they’re long and complex — which they are, and wildly theatrical to boot — but the instrumental line-up allows them a depth and richness of texture that most rock bands can’t match. Like us, they’re a six-piece, with a front line of horns and guitar and a back line of bass, drums, and keyboards-slash-accordion-slash-fiddle. (And unlike us, they know how to arrange themselves so they don’t look crowded on that little stage.) And it’s the generosity and playfulness — nobody is holding anything back.
Amanda in particular is a dynamo, holding the room effortlessly as the band winds through epic narrative songs that blend elements of cabaret, indie rock, and singer-songwriter stylings. I am riveted, and the grin will not leave my face. Near by me the three boys of Access Indigo are skanking around in an ecstatic, noodle-limbed dance.
And my mind suddenly turns from the injustice that there are only a few people here to see this show. It seems far more unjust that there are hundreds, thousands of people missing it. I don’t feel bad for Community Center, or for anyone in this room; I feel bad instead for anybody who is anywhere else at this moment.
But alas, the night is wearing on. I really want to stay ‘til last call, but I have to get up at an ungodly hour to see Sam off for his first day of ninth grade. I make my apologies to Access Indigo, wish them luck, shake hands all around, and I’m gone into the dark.
Sunday, September 11, 2016
I’m in the sculpture garden at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery on a spectacular blue Sunday, getting ready to play a full set for the annual Clothesline Arts Festival. It’s a long-running, locally beloved event — a weekend-long expo and marketplace for fine artists and artisans from all over upstate. You know the scene: printmakers, painters blinking in the sunlight, furtively smoking out back of their tents, hawking fake Jack Vettrianos (which twenty years ago would’ve been fake David Hockneys) to hang in your living room or office, lots of handmade jewelry, that one guy who builds African-style drums with hair still on the skins. It’s a great day out for families as summer turns to fall, with food trucks and live music and the cool quiet of the museum there to duck into if it all gets to be a little too much.
Three bands play each day. We’re the second act on the second day, sandwiched between an indie act and an old-timey Americana combo. Strange bedfellows. (Indeed, our booking came at the last minute, making me wonder if we weren’t somebody’s second choice.) But Danielle is with me, along with Sam, who’s never seen us play, so it’s a red-letter day.
The venue provides all mics and stands, so I have no more gear than I can carry on my back and in my two hands — just a backpack, guitar stand, darabouka, and my Martin in a gig bag. Good thing, too, because there’s no artist parking as such; Danielle pulls momentarily to the curb and I hoof it two blocks.
I’m the first to arrive. I pile my gear under a tree and watch the back end of a set by Rain & Leaves. They’re a twee-pop duo, ukulele, bass, and electronics, and I steel myself for something too, too precious for words — but then, they’re getting booked in places that won’t return my calls, so what do I know? I mean, sure they do a song from fucking Hamilton, but the steady stream of people through the sculpture garden digs it well enough. And they close with a cover of “Shut Up and Dance,” and it is a stormer.
My boys start drifting in around then, jacking cars up on the sidewalk to quickly unload before setting off to find parking. I meet Mike’s parents; his dad is a guitarist, too — and a self-proclaimed big fan of the band. That doesn’t seem such an outlandish thought, now.
The set list is tricky. We have a full ninety minutes, but we’re playing as a five-piece — Deanna’s away on business — which limits our choices some. We get by. The sound is excellent; the tech is running the whole thing from his phone, and our monitor mixes are crystalline. Consequently, Craig and I both sing well, though of course we miss Deanna’s high harmonies. We do “Wayside,” and it’s momentarily startling to hear it coming out of my own mouth rather than hers. There are some hitches — a broken string, again — but the day is glorious and the crowd is friendly, with lots of little kids doing floppy, excited little-kid dances, and I have room to jump around the stage and generally ham it up, and everybody has a good time.
We scatter quickly afterward. I had wanted to stay and watch the Crooked North, but it’s hot and shadeless, and Sam and Danielle have exhausted the festival’s options for distraction, so once again I make my excuses and head out home.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
By this point it’s not quite starting to feel like a job, but it does feel like we’re getting quite good at it — the way you’d get good at a job after doing it a while. We’re at the House of Guitars, which is less a house than a complex of buildings — guitar shop, record store, practice rooms, and music school — with an outdoor stage in the back, a big lofty concrete thing with a plexiglas awning. We’re playing as part of the store’s fall music festival; through September and well into October, the HoG showcases local bands every Saturday from noon to six. We’ve put together a killer hour-and-a-half.
The sound is (again) outstanding, with clean, warm monitor mixes for each of us. In terms of sheer acreage, this is the biggest stage we’ve ever played by far — and I am determined to fill every inch of it. I’ve traded my usual clodhopper boots for dancing shoes — well, canvas tennies, anyway — and I give my most physical performance yet; tripping, sliding, throwing shapes, pogoing around, even dropping to my knees for “Sister Saintly.”
Now, James Brown I ain’t, but we’re having a ball — right up until the moment, about halfway through, when one of the organizers slides up to tell me that we need to cut short our set.
I cannot for the life of me figure out why they’d cut back on our time. We are the first act of the day, so there’s no way the event can be running long. All I can think is that the next band — a barroom attraction considerably more established than we — have arrived early and are far too big and important to be asked to wait their proper turn. I see them standing off to one side, glaring daggers at us for having the temerity to occupy their stage.
We have a hurried onstage conference, and quickly reach a three-word verdict: This is bullshit. And we decide on a course of action which is even terser: Fuck ‘em. Everybody turns up just a little, and we tear ass into the next number, and then the next, and the next, playing angry and barely pausing for breath. If they pull the plug on us, so be it — but we’ll be damned if we’re gonna make it easy for them.
We sprint to the end of the set, bring it in hard and hot. And when we’re done, I pity the poor bastards who have to take that stage after us.
As it turns out, nobody does. After our teardown and while the next band is setting up, the sky — which has been threatening all morning — open ups with rain; everything has to be moved indoors, and now things are running late for all the impatience of the big shots.
I don’t stick around to cheer them on, and for once I don’t feel bad about it. There’s a lot to be said for being part of a supportive community of artists, but sometimes we rock the hardest when it’s us against the world.
Next: Reap What You Sow