2011 US Tour Post #5 - In the land of music, magic, pirates, haunted houses and food....and beyond!

I think it's time to let you all in on something that has been looming over the entirety of our tour....the curse!  Maybe it's not a curse.  It's not anything bad...just weird.  You could call it the charm or the blessing, but we like calling it the curse.  It's much more dramatic sounding.  We first noticed the curse when we were driving through Arizona listening to Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" album and the song "All or Nothing" was playing....just as we passed a large sign that said "All you need!" and below it "Nothing"!  What a strange coincidence, we thought.  A few hours later we were listening to U2's song "Who's gonna ride your wild horses"...just as we passed a group of horses on our left hand side.  Later that night after the gig, Ricky and I were discussing the difference between my songwriting style and hers and just as Ricky was telling me that my songs were more epic than mine, we passed a large neon sign that said "Epic".  By this time we were sufficiently freaked out.  The curse left us alone for about two weeks.  Then as we entered Louisiana, known for it's otherworldly mystical mischief, it came back with a vengeance.  At our show in Baton Rouge while Ricky was singing "Why Be Blue", just as she was about to sing the line, "And you nearly shout," some guy came running through shouting at the top of his lungs.  Then a day or two later while in the New Orleans Whole Foods Market, after listening to "Proud Mary" by Creedence Clearwater Revival in the car on the way over and discussing whether Fogerty and Co or Ike and Tina Turner had the definitive version of this song, what came on but Tina Turner's rendition of "Proud Mary".  There were other occurances of this strange phenomenon I know I'm forgetting.  We're not completely sure what this omen means, but we know it must mean something...

Monday is usually my blog night but here I am on a Friday afternoon in a friend's basement in Nashville on a day off trying to encapsulate the past week and four days.  Time is so hard to keep track of on tour.  It feels like months since I wrote my last blog while sitting at my uncle's house in Houston.  I don't think my brain is used to registering so many events and changes in scenery in such a short period of time.  But let's see how much I can remember here...

I suppose I should start by giving you something I promised last post.  We had our Dallas show professionally filmed in HD by a filmmaker/videographer/cool guy named Sean Kennedy.  My flip camera which we shoot most of our shows with is decent enough to serve our purposes but nothing beats being filmed with some really great equipment with audio coming directly from the sound board.  He just sent me the finished files a few days ago and here are the links where you can see them:

"Angels" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHw2bvbg1N8&feature=related
"Smaller Than You Think"-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9MtjL80YjQ&feature=related
"As Your Hands Can Hold"- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zu6TVvpIJlA
"Sycamore"- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9fA95En4jI&feature=related
"Juniper" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EIhZKwC3yg&feature=related
"Best Thing" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHbuUdFuUW0
"Aquarium" -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bytEZ-JO5_U&feature=related
"Heart Of Gold" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIYRPO6HK14

When we last left our heroes, Ricky and I were leaving Houston for Louisiana.  As I mentioned in the last entry, my dad was born in New Orleans as well as his parents and their parents and some of their parents (although we don't go back quite as far as I thought in New Orleans, as I learned a few days later...).  Almost immediately after leaving Houston, the landscape began to change.  We were most definitely entering swamp land and the trees on either side of the road seemed to go on forever into an endless jungle.  A good portion of the freeway upon crossing the Louisiana border was actually suspended over the swamp itself, one long bridge punitively snaking through the tangled mesh trees and vegetation.  The number of exit signs with names ending with -eaux increased exponentially.  I kid you not, two of the signs we passed said "Butte LaRose" and "Grosse Teetes".  I don't think I want to know where those names came from...

Our first Louisiana stop was Baton Rouge.  We got off the exit and into what felt like something from another time.  A small white wooden house was labeled city court house.  Everything had this muted feeling to it as if nothing had been changed or repainted since it was built nearly a century ago.  We arrived at the venue to find that our 8 o'clock gig would not be starting until 11, so we had a little bit of time to walk around.  A video's worth a million words right?  Here's Ricky and I walking around downtown Baton Rouge before our show...  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE9JnC1F6B4

The show itself was at a small bar called Red Star a few blocks from the main strip, definitely what one might call a "bro bar", or since we were in Louisiana, a "breaux bar".  It was kind of a noisy crowd; lots of random shouting from the audience and other random drunken noises that had very little to do with or even awareness of the fact that we were playing.  As per usual there was a small handful of people who were paying attention and seemed to enjoy our set, and we even won over a few of the drunk people as well.  We sold some CD's afterwards to some guys named Jerry and Lee (I asked where Lewis was and it was completely lost on them...too bad Paige wasn't there), and then left for New Orleans.

"Time Can't Fly A Plane" at Red Star Bar- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTtX9xqOrko
"Melt In My Mind" at Red Star Bar- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PvP0JSE_n0

It was about a two hour drive from Baton Rouge and too dark to see much as we pulled into town.  My family's old friend Charlie Peacock had set us up to stay with friends of his, Desi and Erich Richter who were fast asleep when we arrived at their house in the New Orleans suburbs (if there is such a thing) around 3am.

In the morning, Desi welcomed us with breakfast and a map and guidebook of the city.  (I swear we've been meeting the nicest people on this tour.)  After breakfast, Ricky and I headed over to the famous French Quarter.  Nothing, not even Baton Rouge, could have prepared us for what being in New Orleans would actually be like.  You have this vague picture in your head of a caricature of different places in the world you might like to visit someday and what they might be like.  More often than not, your image of the city is based on sometime in the past, a glory day that has long since passed that perhaps has been preserved in some way but now peppered with modern awareness and tourism considerations and the like.  New Orleans was everything I could have possibly imagined and more.  It hadn't lost a bit of its original magic but it wasn't looking backwards either; it had just never stopped.  Even Katrina couldn't wash away this city's spirit and in a way seems to have cemented it as even more unshakable and eternal than ever before.  There was something so familiar about the place, that just felt like home or something from a reoccurring dream or something like that.  I don't know how much I believe in this sort of thing, but the fact that my family roots go back so far could mean that some piece of me had in fact been floating around in that city for about a century before I was born.  Or maybe it could be that this was a city whose main keystones read like a list of my primary childhood interests: music, magic, food, haunted houses, and pirates!  Nashville is Music City, Austin is the live music capital of the world, and Los Angeles is the factory where pop is created, but I've never been anywhere that lives and breathes music like New Orleans.  It doesn't even have to try.  It's not like there's a "music scene".  There's just music anywhere.  Where else in the world has a live jazz pianist playing in an almost empty corner grocery store at 11pm?  I thought my eyes were deceiving me from across the room, but we did confirm that in one particular jazz club we went to, there was a piano in the bathroom!  They even give free health insurance to musicians who they call "tradition upholders".  All you have to do is drop off a CD down at the clinic and they'll set you up.  Anyway, I'll let you see mine and Ricky's first impressions of walking around the French Quarter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCJe4jy4B8U.

What you won't see in the video is all the amazing independent art galleries we went to, the heavenly beignets I graciously enjoyed for the both of us (!), or Susan the fortune teller who gave Ricky and I both poignant advice on our lives, past, present and future.  I'd never been to a fortune teller before (a term which she said was a bit of a misnomer) and if anything, it seemed more like what I would imagine going to a psychologist would be like, an experience I've never had before either.  I actually saw a lot of similarities, and Susan agreed, between fortune telling and songwriting; creating something universal enough that each person hearing it could feel spoken to specifically and individually.

Our amazing day came to somewhat of an unpleasant end when we returned to our parking spot a few hours later to discover our car had been towed from the loading only zone we had unwittingly parked in.  A ten block walk and $170 later, we were able to retrieve our vehicle but it was a bit of a mood killer after an otherwise wonderful day.  The gig that night did very little to lift our spirits.  Neutral Ground Coffee seemed like a hip little spot.  We were to play after the regular poetry reading scheduled that evening and were happy to find the place relatively full of avid college age poetry fans who we looked forward to sharing our music with afterward.  Unfortunately, the crowd really was just there for the poetry and all but one or two departed as soon as the poetry reading was finished (again, the line "If I've said it once I've said it a hundred times....Spinal Tap and then Puppet Show" flashed through my head a few times).  It's really never any fun to play to an empty room.  Actually, let me clarify that.  I have loads of fun playing music alone in my room at home.  But then again, there's not supposed to be anyone else in there but me.  What I should say is that it's no fun to play to an empty room that is meant to have people in it, especially one that has just had people in it.  We got through the set and a few more people wandered in by the end of it and even bought CD's but it was not the most enjoyable gig ever, especially coming down from the high of earlier in the day exploring the French Quarter.

A more troubling development was that by the end of that day, Ricky was feeling downright awful.  The air in Louisiana was damp, polluted and full of allergens and Ricky had been experiencing breathing problems since we had arrived and they only seemed to be getting worse.

Ricky wanted to take the next day to rest and hopefully recover.  A few days earlier I had gotten in touch with my great aunt Dottie, my grandmother Helen's (my dad's mother whom I called her Memer...she passed away in 2006) older sister whom I had never met before, and we had arranged to have lunch that day.  Dottie was one of millions of people whose house had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and I met her in the senior living apartment complex where she now resided.  Dottie greeted me in the lobby and despite having never seen each other before, we instantly recognized each other.  It's hard not to recognize someone you're related to and Dottie looked so much like my grandmother did before she got sick with Alzheimer's.  She was a very small woman coming only to below my shoulder with vibrant silvery white hair and dressed very elegantly, like you might imagine a southern judge or lawyer dressing...which is exactly what she was.  At 89 years old, she was still an extremely sharp and engaging person to talk to who seemed to have lost none of the vigor she'd had for the entirety of her life.  What I expected to be somewhat brief hour or so long lunch of primarily surface introductions turned into six hours of some of the most interesting and enjoyable conversation I've ever had.  Dottie spoke candidly about her life and about the lives of those who came before us.  She laid out as much detail about our family history as she could remember, and it was amazing how much detail she had retained over so many years.  Apparently music has been in our family for longer than I knew as she recalled one of her earlier memories being of her old uncle Ferdinand who would come over and could play anything you asked him to on the piano just by ear (in typical musician fashion he married a rich woman and upon her death received her fortune and promptly spent it all in a year leaving him completely broke before marrying two more times and then dying penniless...what a rock star!).  She told me about her own history going to study law at Tulane at a time when it was rare and even looked down upon for a woman to aspire to such a high professional calling.  Upon entering the school the first day, a young male student called out to her, "Why aren't you back home cooking in the kitchen?"  Within a month, he was copying notes from her!  Her younger sister, my grandmother, pursued a similar academic path becoming the first woman to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering from Tulane University, a fact that my Goomba proudly repeated to me often.  It was clear Dottie missed my grandmother very much saying that she was the last person you'd ever have expected Alzheimer's to happen to and that she never dreamed that she would outlive her younger sister.  She told me about having seen the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in New York featuring a young up and coming singer named Frank Sinatra.  He hadn't hit it big yet but she said the way the girls reacted to him even then, you just knew he was going to be big.  She talked a lot about the present as well.  It had been a painful loss for her to lose her house where she had lived for forty years and where she had assumed she'd finish out her life.  The senior community was nice enough but was no substitute for the freedom of having your own home.  She'd lost everything in Katrina, most painfully all her pictures.  One of the coolest things she showed me had been found in the gutter outside her demolished home and kept by a neighbor for her.  It was a gold picture frame that held two photos and folded in half.  In one half was a black and white photo of Dottie in her twenties kneeling on the floor in front of an old fireplace with her young five year old son Henri beside her.  Standing behind her is her mother, Helen, and seated in the foreground is Dottie's grandmother Josephine.  In the other half of the frame is a color photo taken many years later in front of that same fireplace with Dottie, now in her eighties, seated in a chair ("I'm in the hot seat in this one," she noted), with her son Henri, here in his fifties, standing behind her with his twenty something year old daughter on the floor with her young son. Dottie said one thing she's thankful for is that a few years before Katrina, she had made scrapbooks for her two sons which now contained her only surviving old pictures.  She was very curious to learn from me that there were websites where you could store your pictures online.  She eagerly wrote down "flickr.com" and "facebook.com" in her little notebook and paid close attention as I explained how to upload and post pictures.  One thing I really liked about her a lot is that even at 89 she was still very keen on keeping up to date on modern technology.  Dottie said she was very glad I had visited her and promised to keep in touch.  I couldn't even express how grateful I was to have had this visit with her.  I'd made a lot of new friends on this trip so far, but in Dottie I had found a new family member.

Ricky was just barely awake when I returned home and still having trouble breathing, but she was still up for a night on the town in New Orleans.  We had one goal in mind and that was to find some great authentic New Orleans jazz.  We headed down to Frenchman Street (if that's not a redundant street name I don't know what is) where we had been told was the place to find as much jazz as we could ever want and we were like kids in a candy store literally able to walk down the block and into just about every door to find this amazing live music being performed.  Even on the sidewalk outside, music was being played and it was all great.  We traded off songs with one street performer named Shane who had recently moved down to New Orleans from Boston.  He told us things about the city that I want so much to work into lyrics sometime soon like a statue of Joan of Arc that people make wishes on and a giant bohemian treehouse.  We finally settled on a bar called the Three Muses where Aurora Neland and the Royal Roses weaved a spell of some of the sweetest jazz I'd ever heard.  It was one of those moments that was almost melancholy because you knew in a few short hours, this magical moment in your life was going to be consigned to simply a memory that you would always see through the looking glass for the rest of your life but would never again be reachable save for in that precious present when Aurora's saxophone rained on me and my heart was quenched.

Ricky was feeling worse and worse.  The next day she decided to go see the doctor and came back with the diagnosis of bacterial bronchitis, contracted from the polluted New Orleans air.  It was sad after talking all the night before about how awesome it would be to live here for a while to find out that the air probably wasn't suitable for Ricky to be in for very long.  Even worse was the fact that the doctors had recommended that she didn't sing until she was better if she wanted to prevent permanent damage to her vocal chords.  Earlier in the week, Ricky had been invited to fly back to Sacramento on April 29th to open for Gavin DeGraw, a popular major label singer/songwriter from the early 2000's.  It was a great opportunity but now with her health in such bad condition, even that, which was still a week away, seemed in jeopardy.  That night, I played my first show of the tour alone at Celtic Irish Pub in Pascagoula, Mississippi, a venue our friends in Musical Charis recommended we get in touch with.  I got a great response from the crowd and people bought CD's but it was weird playing without Ricky.

The next day we drove to Nashville where I lived for a good portion of my childhood.  It's getting less strange to come back since through touring, my visits have been more frequent.  The strange thing is that with each visit, it feels less familiar and there are less people there who I still have connections with, but such is the passage of time.  We were set to play at a venue called Ugly Mugs in East Nashville.  Ricky was still not doing any better and elected to sit this one out as well, so I once again played my own set to a small but attentive crowd.  This show was professionally filmed as well so I got some great footage out of it.  Here's "One More Song For the Road" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_QnHc0sBW8

After the show we headed over to the house of Charlie Peacock and Andi Ashworth, two of my parents oldest and dearest friends.  The Ashworths live in an old church which they converted into a home and studio complex twenties years earlier when they first moved to Nashville.  It's one of the most amazing homes I've ever been in and there's this energy about it that somehow tells you that these walls are meant to be filled with people creating.  Most of my memories of that house were from when I was very young, playing in the garden while my dad was recording so it was a bit surreal to drive up there now at 23.

The following day was Easter.  I went to church with Charlie and Andi and afterwards, over fifty people came over to the house for an Easter party.  It's interesting how life goes in cycles.  When I was a kid and my family would go to Charlie and Andi's parties, my sisters and I were some of the only small children there as Charlie and Andi's own kids were by that time in their late teens and early twenties, as were most of their friends.  Now ten years later, Sam Ashworth is the father of five and most of his and his sister Molly's friends have small children of their own and Charlie and Andi are now in the role of fun grandparents so there were tons of kids at this party.  I helped hide Easter eggs for them and then participated in the adult easter egg hunt later on.  After a few weeks on a diet of almost exclusively rotisserie chicken and bread (both delicious in their own right), I was extremely grateful to take part in the mouthwatering banquet that had been prepared by Andi and a few of the other party attendees.

Ricky stayed in bed that entire day and she wasn't feeling better at all; if anything worse.  We were set to leave Nashville the next morning for South Carolina to do a three date run of the south before returning to Nashville on Thursday but by the end Easter, it was pretty clear that Ricky wasn't going to be in any condition to play those shows.  It was kind of a difficult decision to come to but we decided it would be best for her to stay behind in Nashville and rest up while I went and did those southern dates myself.

I dropped Ricky off at home of David Schober, another old family friend who had graciously offered to let her rest for the week in his guest quarters, and then started on the nine hour drive towards Charleston.  It was one of the longer drives on the tour and doing that distance alone is a very different experience than doing it with someone.  The scenery was pretty but monotonous.  The highway was a small path cut through rows and rows of trees almost the entire way there.  At a couple of points after crossing into South Carolina, I passed through small towns, mostly unchanged it seemed from the movies you'd see set in the South in the fifties and sixties.  Mainly big plantation style homes on huge pieces of land.  You'd pass through the "downtown" part which would mainly consist of auto shops and few southern style cooking restaurants.  There was one town where the auto shop, the junk yard, and the law office all were owned by the same people!  And of course lots and lots of churches.  At one point, in one of these towns, I passed a Hindu temple and community center.  What an interesting interview that would be with the head of that congregation on what it is like to operate a Hindu temple in the middle of a small town in South Carolina!

After nine hours of driving I arrived at Chucktown Tavern in Charleston.  After nine hours of driving through the set of Driving Miss Daisy and Gone With The Wind, Charleston actually seemed like a pretty hip little college town.  There was absolutely no one at the venue and the people working there hardly seemed to remember I was coming.  The bartender suggested that I set up outside which would maybe attract some more people, but after about six songs played for one elderly World War Two veteran who kept telling me he thought it was really great what I was doing with my life, it began to rain.  I moved everything inside and was about to call it a night when a few people wandered in and asked me to keep playing.  So with the crowd now quadrupled, I played for another two hours.  The bartender kept telling stories in between songs about various people she'd met and I on the spot turned them into country songs.  One story was about a couple she knew who had been married for decades whose marriage came to an abrupt and unpleasant end when the husband revealed that he had been cheating on his wife for years and had been cheating on her with a man.  So that turned into:

    "Darlin' there's no other girl who'll ever catch my eye
    Darlin' there's no other girl who ever will be mine
    But darlin' you can never say that I told you a lie
    I said no other girl I never said no other guy!"

That got plenty of hoots and hollers as you might imagine.  I seemed to have won over the four patrons of the Chucktown Tavern....and then the bartender asked if she had to pay me since hardly anyone showed up.  I ended up walking out with $75 and the chance to use their microwave for my rotisserie chicken...  I stayed with a guy from couchsurfing.org named Charlie who was very gracious to host me for the night and give me my own room.  I was in kind of a crummy mood that night.  Usually after a gig like that, Ricky would be there and we'd be able to laugh it off together and move onto talking about something else to cheer ourselves up, but tonight I was facing it alone.  In a way it was a wake up call.  The past week or so had been some of the most enjoyable of the tour, getting wrapped up in the wonder of New Orleans, but in reality it had also been one of the least successful.  We'd played to primarily empty rooms and had made very little money and were losing money if anything.  While the places we were visiting were inspiring and playing shows every night was making us better and better as singers, musicians and performers, I didn't feel like we were reaching our main goal which was to grow our fan base, at least to the degree that I would like to see.  But how do you get people to come see a performer they'd never heard of before?  We'd sent posters ahead of time advertising our shows to some of the venues we were scheduled to play at but I hadn't seen any difference in attendance between the shows we had sent posters to and those we hadn't.  I mean I probably wouldn't go out to a show by an artist I'd never heard or heard of before simply because of seeing a poster either.  I fell asleep with a lot on my mind.

The next day I got up and drove to Columbia.  I sat at Starbucks for most of the day working on editing the live shows we'd been recording for our donors and booking the last leg of our tour.  The show was at a venue called Gervais and Vine (it would have been funny if Ricky had been able been able to play at a venue called Gervais...), a tapas bar.  Never understood the whole tapa thing; not enough food for way too much money.  They served me a delicious personal pesto pizza on the house and I played about a two hour set for a pretty full restaurant.  There was a lot of talking during my performance as is common during restaurant performances, but it was clear that many of the patrons really enjoyed my performance and I was paid well that night.

I stayed that night with another Couch Surfer named Alita and then headed out early the next morning for Athens, Georgia (first Columbia, then Athens, you'd think this was an international tour).  Athens was a very cool town.  I wish I'd had more time to explore, but I was in full on work mode at this point.  I found a coffeeshop and sat writing venues, writing post cards and editing our live performances.  The gig that night was at a restaurant called the Globe.  It was a similar gig to the night before only this time no one was paying attention.  I might have gotten applause twice.  I still sold a CD though, so I guess someone was listening.  By the way, what do you get when you cross Athens, Greece with Athens, Georgia?  R.E.stotle!!!  Get it??  Boy, I crack myself up sometimes....;)

All in all, the trip through the South didn't feel very worthwhile.  My mantra has thus far been "every gig counts", but I think after that trip it's changed to the more proactive "make sure every gig counts".  The other thing that had happened that night as I slept soundly in the house of an Athens Couch Surfer was that tons of tornados had ripped across Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, wreaking havoc and devastation and killing over 300 people.  On my way back to Nashville, I passed by chilling scenes of trees uprooted and sliced down the middle, restaurants looking like a bomb went off inside, and metal road signs ripped to shreds.  I'd seen this kind of thing on TV before but never in person.

Ricky hadn't improved at all upon my return to Nashville so I played yet another gig alone that night at Casablanca Coffee.  I wasn't completely alone as I was joined by my old friend Robby Mogan whom I've been playing music with on and off since sixth grade.  We actually had a decent little crowd and it was nice to play a show for an audience who was actually paying attention.  We covered "Dead Flowers" by the Stones to close out the night, a song we used to perform out in the streets of Santa Cruz.  I got to meet a guy named Richard Law at the show who used to sing for Roy Orbison, one of my heroes, and he regaled us with stories.

I took Ricky to the airport Friday morning to catch a flight to Sacramento for her Gavin DeGraw gig which she had vowed she would do no matter what.  I spent the day mainly working on this blog and some other stuff and then hung out with Robby that evening and stayed the night at his house.

This blog truly is taking you right up to the moment...  I woke up this morning, just a few hours ago, to some texts from Ricky saying that while her show had gone well, she was feeling worse than ever and had decided to stay in Sacramento until she was recovered and then hopefully fly out to meet me in New York in a week and a half.  The tour will go on but it's going to continue to be a strange experience doing this alone without my friend with me.  I'm going to use this week to really strategize and think hard on how to make the rest of this tour and future tours more successful.  In the meantime, I want to make every show of this week and beyond the best I've ever played and give everyone in attendance a performance they'll remember for a long time.  That's truly the best I can do for now.