True tales and sordid stories from the indie-pop hinterlands!
Last month I played seven nights in a row at Al’s Den in Portland, Oregon, and had more than 85 songs ready to pull from the hat. Down below the Spotify playlist are the (60+) songs that actually got played over those seven nights.
And here’s a playlist of all those songs I could find on Spotify…
[Note: my new album and a few unreleased tracks are not yet available on Spotify, but check back soon!]
If you were there, which of these songs were your favorites?
Stained Glass Windows
User-Friendly Guide to Change
The Love I Fake
Little Love Affairs
Half Awake, Half Asleep
An Unlikely Proposal Repeats
Anxiety on Parade
The Soldier’s Bride
Xmas Card from NYC to Anyone Who’ll Read It, 1946
Sitting Inside a Sinking Submarine
Head to Head with the Smarts of Our Leisure
Maybe He Was Meant for You
Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song (Harry Nilsson)
Everybody’s Talkin’ (Harry Nilsson)
Gotta Get Up (Harry Nilsson)
Without Her (Harry Nilsson)
One (Harry Nilsson)
Cuddly Toy (Harry Nilsson)
1941 (Harry Nilsson)
Without You (Harry Nilsson)
Coconut (Harry Nilsson)
Don’t Forget Me (Harry Nilsson)
The Muppets Theme Song
I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon (Sesame Street)
When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano (The Ink Spots)
Tonight You Belong to Me (Rose & David)
Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
Inchworm (Danny Kaye)
Oh You Pretty Things (David Bowie)
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Memory of a Free Festival (David Bowie)
Dancing in the Dark (Bruce Springsteen)
Big Love (Fleetwood Mac)
Everything In Its Right Place (Radiohead)
Time (Pink Floyd)
Dirty Work (Steely Dan)
Right Down the Line (Gerry Rafferty)
Gymnopédie No. 1 (Erik Satie)
Teenage Dream (Katy Perry)
Junk (Paul McCartney)
Let Me Roll It (Paul McCartney)
Sunny Afternoon (The Kinks)
Nobody Does it Better (Carly Simon)
Goldfinger (Shirley Bassey)
Any and all visits to Portland, Oregon must begin with a pilgrimage to Powell’s, the greatest bookstore on the planet, where I like to look through the lit mag racks for poems written by some of my writer friends.
… and usually resulting in a hefty purchase. This visit actually wasn’t too pricey:
Then I played a show at Al’s Den as part of my friend Lincoln Barr’s weeklong residency there. Here he is playing one of his newer tunes, kind of a mix between new wave pop and the Great American Songbook, if you can imagine it:
I played a fun set and then together we tried a handful of covers we’d never performed before. Chance!
The next day I drove up to Little Rock, Washington for a night of music at Music on the Mounds, an awesome camping/concert series that featured my friends in Moody Little Sister:
And here’s the setting:
After the final concert there was an epic campfire singalong that lasted until 7am. My vocal chords and fingers were miserable, but my spirit was up, up, up — and then I slept until 4pm.
A few days later I played a show with the aforementioned Moody Little Sister and the incredible Mike Coykendall at The Stone, which doubled as a Project Pabst (a rad summer music fest) raffle event. Here’s Mike…
After an exhausting week, the view from the window seat on my flight home to Maine:
Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Pt. 1
I had grand plans for a series of blog posts throughout the late Winter and Spring — one about my trip to Folk Alliance, one about mixing my album, one about some gigs, one about poetry.
But time accelerates the more you lean into it. So I put together a series of Instagram photo diaries for you instead (with captions to prove I’ve not been idle).
First off, this is what the view from my kitchen looked like for almost 4 months. (The lake has finally thawed).
Yes. Cabin Fever! So it was great to get out of town for a bit and head to sunny, warm, tropical … Toronto?
What you can’t see between all those twinkling lights is the same damn snow that’d been falling in New England. I’m not sure why the good people who throw the International Folk Alliance Conference every year decided that Canada in February was a smart move — (they could’ve picked Austin, San Diego, Key West!) —but it ended up being a great time as always.
Folk Alliance is five days of non-stop music from 9am to 4am, with hundreds of concerts, a few films, and dozens of panels every single day. Wake, repeat.
On the down-side of things, I was so worried about this …
… that I didn’t check on the condition of my guitar immediately upon de-boarding.
I finally opened up the case once I’d gotten through Custons and saw this:
A long crack along the grain on the body of my guitar. Boo!
Remember that song “United Breaks Guitars?” It’s unfortunately still true. And they still don’t give two shits about it.
Despite my best attempts, they ain’t gonna do a thing for me — so the search for a good guitar repairman in Maine begins.
(If you want to read more about the misadventures of my guitar on two United flights to Canada, read THIS).
Anyway, the thing still played — so the shows went on. All five of ’em. (A couple of my showcases started at 2am).
Here are the postcards I printed with my showcase schedule:
Folk Alliance is a love-fest for all kinds of Americana, country, Bluegrass, blues, folk-pop, and singer-songwriter fans and artists. Thousands of people take over a hotel for a week, drink Red Bull so they can stay awake until sunrise, and burn themselves to nothing. It’s really mad.
And inspiring — as the quality of the musicianship is incredible. Many of the best acts in the States and Canada attend, and they perform without any amplification for lucky little crowds of people squeezed into upstairs hotel rooms (with the beds removed) — like this:
That’s Birds of Chicago. Check ’em out. They’re great.
As you might imagine, it ain’t for the claustrophobic. The hallways, rooms, stairwells, and elevators are packed — unless it’s 4am on the 11th floor. Someone apparently doesn’t need their bass.
During the days I worked the booth at the trade show for CD Baby, where we had a cardboard cutout of one of my favorite songwriters (and an extremely awesome person in general) — Mary Gauthier.
Here she is: Fake plastic Mary, or Faux-Shay.
While I was there, I also spoke on a panel about music marketing and social media — because, according to this issue of Indie Mag which arrived in the mail just before I left for Folk Alliance, I know something about those topics. (For any readers of the DIY Musician Blog — “do as I say, not as I do!”)
The talk went well, and then we all got tacos.
What else happened at Folk Alliance? Oh, I fought off a cold the whole time. The hotel was so dry that some of the luthiers exhibiting their guitars decided to go home early, afraid that their instruments might crack. I hung out a bunch with Mike Meadows of Swan Percussion and Molly King from CD Baby. Ate sushi. Played music. Saw Judy Collins. Searched in vain for wi-fi. Found it. Lost it. Flew home.
Were you there? What’d you do? Who’d you see? Lemme know in the comments section below, yo!
Occupied in Oregonia
It was a busy trip out West — beginning with a very snowy runway.
I played keyboards and guitar for Rob Stroup & the Blame at Secret Society Ballroom — and someone in the audience did this painting of us during our set.
I sat in with Rob and Naomi Hooley at the Edgefield Winery, singing a handful of my own tunes, as well as a mashup of Neil Young’s “Wrecking Ball” with Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” that killed it!
I led a new guest lineup of my band (Arthur Parker, Anders Bergstrom, Bob Dunham, Rob Stroup, and Naomi Hooley) through a bunch of songs by Los Angeles artists for PBR’s “Cities” night at Mississippi Studios. We played Beck’s “Golden Age,” Randy Newman’s “Little Criminals,” Nilsson’s “Coconut,” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.”
And I finished tracking my latest album — the one we recorded mostly live on the Oregon coast. Here are some photos I shot while putting the final touches on the songs at 8 Ball Studio.
Wurlitzer. Making tasteful cameos on 2 or 3 songs. Sweet, sweet, vintage warmth.
The console. Or as Rob says, “If you can’t be with the Neve you love, love the Ghost you’re with.”
The sweetest J45 on the planet. The animal skin bass drum is just for show, though.
Oh, choices! When crippled by options —go with the Telecaster.
8 Ball Studio, thank you. This was the most enjoyable and inspiring recording project I’ve undertaken in a very long time.
For the Fear of Heights, touring is the antithetical experience. Beneath our fierce and ragged Rock n’ Roll veneer (stop laughing!), we’re all macrobiotic convenience stores, responsible driving, nursing colds with netie pots, punctual performances, and smiles. Come to think of it, we’re kinda like the Epcott Center of indie-pop. Cross cultural corridors and marshmellow goodness. Mysterious spiky globe at the center and 24-hour showings of a freaky Michael Jackson movie. I think the current music scene needs its very own Epcott Center and we’re happy roll that weird ball up and down the coast as many times as we need to drive that point home.Â
And speaking of home, we left our viola player home in Portland. The tour was supposed to begin on a Wednesday in Meford, but Rachel and Ben were both extremely ill with acute bronchitis. They weren’t well enough to go in the first place, but the rest of us weren’t really psyched about spending hours upon hours in an enclosed Ford E-350 with them either. So I canceled the Medford show in hopes that a day or two of rest would get them into fighting trim. It did not. But by Friday Rachel determined she was at least not contagious anymore (a hunch we have yet to disprove) so we left early for Modesto, leaving Ben behind. It was a long drive, 12 hours with a lunch break, and we pulled up to the Deva CafÃ© right as the first band was launching into their set. Then Spokane’s awesome Karli Fairbanks played. Then we played. Rachel soldiered through the set and we pulled it off. Then Not An Airplane went on. It was their CD release party, so I felt bad having to whisk away in order to get Rachel to her sequestered, germ-free bubble at the Comfort Inn. But I made it back in time for their last two songs.Â
Modesto is flat out awesome. This guy Greg who runs the Off-the-Air shows seems to single-handedly lord over (in a benevolent and beneficial way) the local indie music scene. He puts on great shows that bring out supportive, enthusiastic crowds, and the musicians in town are extremely nice, too. (disclaimer: Modesto Arts Council actually pays me $14 every time I plug their town). With Rachel safely set in her hotel, the rest of us went to get some drinks at a place called the “Firkin and Fox” where the staff gets a real kick out of saying things like, “Firkin A! Our Cajun crisps are the Firkin best in town!” We didn’t last long.Â
We crashed at my friend Jeff’s house. He had just gone to a Scotch tasting class and was happy to crack open his favorite bottle for us and tell us about how it was made. His buddy who DJs at the local rock station came over (at about 2am) and we sat on the porch chatting about the differences between Modesto and Portland (many) and what we preferred about each town. Whenever his friend addressed any one of us, he’d say “Chris Robley & the Fear of Heights” which I got a huge kick out of. I don’t think Arthur, Dan, or Peter were quite as amused. But they were good sports.Â
The next day Jeff took us to get the best AND second best Burritos in town. Rachel was feeling worse so she stayed at the Comfort Inn and slept. We left for our next gig in Merced without her. Two down. The Partisan in Merced is a cool place, run by a very nice dude who seems to be the Kingpin of Merced music in a similar way to Greg in Modesto or Michael in Davis. It’s endlessly fascinating to me how these smaller towns have these extremely important personalities who hold the local scenes together simply out of necessity. Portland has so many bands, so many venues, so many blogs, so many opinions already. It doesn’t need any help. But in Modesto, Davis, and Merced, these guys rise up to fulfill a vital role because no one else seems to want to do it. Hats off, fellas!
Anyways, then it was back to Modesto to pick up Rachel and early the next morning we left for San Diego. Our show at Lestat’s was fantastic. Aaron Bowen, a really sweet guy and an incredible singer and guitarist, opened for us and brought out a bunch of his friends to see him/us. Rachel was feeling well enough to play so the set went a bit more according to plan than our impromptu ‘power trio + trumpet’ set in Merced. We sold a bunch of discs, got to meet some really nice peeps, and collectively determined that this was one of those shows that makes you think, “huh! We shouldn’t quit.” In fact, we were told by one audience member that we renewed his faith in the creative process.Â
Today we have the day off in San Diego. Rachel rested up. Used her netie pot. Arthur, Dan, and I took a romantic walk on the beach and had a Poli-Party. No. We didn’t. Just seeing if you’re still paying attention. We did walk on the beach, though. Ben is finally over his bout with coughing up blood and will be flying to San Diego tomorrow morn. We’ll pick him up and then head to LA for our show at Silverlake Lounge and our in-studio recording session at Luxury Wafers. Sometime between now and then we’ll be passing through Anaheim and my heart will sadden a little. I know that below that emblematic castle, below the children’s scurrying feet, beneath the glee, underneath it all is an unseen cast of human souls, dwelling in Disney Hades for the betterment of mankind. Yeah. I know they get a paycheck for their toil, but I salute them all the same. Once we’re past Anaheim I’ll forget about them altogether, and keep looking up.
I woke up this morning in New York City at 2 am, exhausted, at the end of a solo tour. Now Iâ€™m on a plane bound for Portland. Tonight Iâ€™ve got a show at Holocene with Nick Jaina and These United States. Oh, and right before that Iâ€™ll be at the Aladdin Theatre to see Randy Newman. A full day, thatâ€™s for sure. In this kind of tired fog, it is tough to find the right first sentence to begin summarizing a whole tour. But here it goesâ€¦
Preamble: On a cold autumn night, on the eve of CMJ, in a small New York bar, Norah Jones opened up for me.
Itâ€™s a true statement. But I really just needed a hook to hang some words on. Something catchy to get your foot in the door. A sales pitch. Bait. A hook.
Because, after all, no one just wants to read a laundry list of events. Especially when other Portland songwriters like Nick Jaina are weaving allegorical themes and the natural wonders of a lunar eclipse into their tour diaries. But the problem is that nothing in particular was screaming out to be shared. Nothing struck me. Nothing rang my bell, or lit that literary light bulb. I wouldâ€™ve just been stringing you along, and that isnâ€™t fair.
I couldâ€™ve told you about the Fear of Heights at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, opening for Tim Seely. It was the first FOH show that John Stewart was not able to play. His commitment to higher learning has put him on autumn sabbatical, and Peter Swensonâ€”who used to drum for Boys Eats Drum Machineâ€”is standing in for the fall. My stage banter rambled aimlessly. I played electric guitar for the whole set. I ran into Mark Baumgarten. I drank too much. I was told by someone purchasing my album that I sounded like Van Dyke Parks. Another person told me, â€œWow. You guys are fucking weird, huh?â€
I couldâ€™ve told you about touring the Midwest with my wife Kristina. We stayed with a friend in Chicago who is simultaneously writing an epic poem based on the famed 6+1 sci-fi seriesÂ Dune, while also rewriting Ezra Poundâ€™sÂ CantosÂ in its entirety from his own voice and perspective in an attempt to revise historyâ€™s apologetic attitude towards the manâ€™s Fascism and anti-Semitism. What about a nice 14-line sonnet? Call me lazy, but I felt thankful that my medium is the 2-5 minute pop song. I donâ€™t think people have the time, temperament, or attention span for much more than that. Perhaps in the near future the mere intention to perform a melody will be enough to move us to tears.
I couldâ€™ve told you about Milwaukee, where we got to see one of my best friendâ€™s from college perform with the Milwaukee symphony. He felt bad that we werenâ€™t able to catch one of their â€œrealâ€ shows. All we had time for was the kidâ€™s concert at 10 am. We found two open seats amidst a crowd of field trippers, sugared-up children, and worn down teachers. One such child kept kicking the back of my chair during my favorite part of Tchaikovskyâ€™s 1812 Overture. I turned around twice, silently glaring. Then I demanded, â€œPlease stop.â€ He continued. I asked, â€œWill you please stop kicking my chair?â€ He persisted. At that moment I felt plagued by rationalism. When I was his age I was fairly well behaved, quite courteous to those around me, and I loved music, so I couldnâ€™t have imagined kicking someone elseâ€™s chair at a concert. I also hated when adults were condescending to me. So I didnâ€™t want to pull a power-trip on him. I wanted to convey to the boy that Iâ€™m not his teacher, his mom, his dad, his principal, or anyone else who stood to gain from his continued submission. I would never see this kid again. I just wanted this one favor. I simply wanted to enjoy the music. So I decided to treat him like my fellow man. â€œLook. Iâ€™m not trying to be a dick. I just want to enjoy this music.â€ My wife was horrified that I used the word â€œdickâ€ in order to appeal to the better nature of this impudent little whelp. But I thought it might just work.
Sadly, it did not. Seeking a last resort, I surveyed my options. 1) Sit in the empty chair beside him in some strange attempt to embarrass him. 2) Corporeal punishment. I admit, as unbecoming as it is to admit violent urges towards the helpless, the idea of pounding his fragile face (just a little bit) seemed like the emotionally honest thing to do. But I had a gig in Madison that night. Incarceration would have seemed like an unprofessional excuse to the booker and promoter for that show. In the end, the boy won. And he learned a valuable lesson about getting away with things in life. I would have preferred to teach him another lesson entirely.
I couldâ€™ve told you about Madison, a town sharing similar properties to the Bermuda Triangle or a mystical labyrinth. Wherever you go, you are lost. We were willfully deceived by Mapquest AND Google Maps. Neither our hosts nor their friends knew how to navigate the way home, or to the venue, CafÃ© Montmartre, with any degree of certainty. We asked four roadside citizens and one policewoman for directions. All incorrect.
When we finally got to the venue, my quarter-inch cable (not a euphemism) quit on me in the middle of the first song. I finished the tune unamplified and shouting. I thought I was sooooo punk rock. My wife said it was â€œvery professional.â€ Iâ€™m not sure if those two things are at odds or not.
I couldâ€™ve told you aboutÂ (and by now youâ€™ve realized that â€œI couldâ€™ve toldâ€ = â€I am tellingâ€) about driving to Indianapolis for the sole purpose of playing on a radio show, that subsequently canceled my slot at the last minute in favor of the Watson Twins. So my wife and I went to a good old-fashioned Mid-Western, down-home, grit and gristle, American bar and grill. I asked the waitress what kind of beer they had. â€œOh, weâ€™re a full bar. Weâ€™ve got all kinds of everything,â€ she explained.
â€œWhat do you have for IPAs?â€ I asked.
She didnâ€™t think they had any of whatever that was.
â€œHow about pilsner? I think yaâ€™ll have Urquell, right? I saw the neon sign in the window.â€
â€œIâ€™ll have a PBR.â€
â€œOh, we have that.â€
So it ended up being like any other night in Portland, except for the Fox News playing on multiple TVs.
I couldâ€™ve told you about my Boston show at Zuzuâ€™s, part of Cambridgeâ€™s Middle East complex.The Boston GlobeÂ had done a nice show preview, so I think a few people came out because of that. My parents and aunt and uncle came out with a bunch of their friends, so it felt like home turf. Seth Kaufman (one of the awesome souls behind PDX Pop Now!) was visiting Boston with a friend, and they came out. He requested a SORT OFâ€™s song that I dusted off in real-time, nervously transferring my piano part to guitar. The International Hemp Association had their annual meeting at Zuzuâ€™s that night, so I got to meet the owner of Dr. Bronnerâ€™s Soap. I announced from stage that I used his product just the other day and that it gave me a tingle. My parents only knew it was a hemp product of some kind and got a little concerned.
I couldâ€™ve told you about these things (this laundry list, of sorts) but they are already yours. So here is the punchline, the point, the pithy goods, the present youâ€™ve been waiting for since the preamble. Norah Jones opened up for me at Peteâ€™s Candy Store, a cool little venue in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. I showed up an hour before my set to find a trio of girls on stage fumbling with the DIY sound system. They looked unfamiliar, of course, and I thought nothing of it. As they began to play, (two guitars and upright bass) I noticed a small crowd filling in the shotgun room that normally seats 20 comfortably. It was too densely populated for me, so I went into the next room and talked with friends. From what I heard it sounded like a competent old-timey combination of Americana, Western Swing, Jazz, Ragtime, folkâ€¦ you knowâ€¦ modern indie music! With great vocals and harmonies. Anyways, Iâ€™m listening to this stuff playing in the next room and thinking to myself, â€œMan, this is a total Norah Jones rip-off.â€ No sooner had I thought that then they started playing actual Norah Jones tunes. This continued for about 20 minutes until my wife came out of the performance room and I asked her, â€œDid they just play four Norah Jones songs in a row?â€
â€œYes,â€ She replied.
â€œThat is lame,â€ I responded.
â€œNo! That IS Norah Jones.â€
Ohhhh! That makes sense. I guess. Although I definitely didnâ€™t recognize her. Gone was the long curly brown hair. She had cut it short and dyed it blonde. No fancy gowns, dresses, classy getups, etc. Nope. Just a plain white, mangy, Gram Parson t-shirt. And Iâ€™d always seen her at the piano. Here she was transforming into a nylon string Satriani. The other members swore like sailors. In between songs there was a great, furious splattering of profanities from her band.Â I got a particular kick out of that. Vulgarity is never lost on me.
Anyways, after her set I introduced myself while waiting to set up. I have found time and time again that â€œMike Coykendallâ€ is a great icebreaker. Merely saying the name brings joy to any hardened face. Either everyone on the planet knows Mike or they are just being polite and have no idea who Iâ€™m talking about. Either way, she said, â€œOh, I love Mike.â€ Test this out for yourself in a new social setting and please report back about your results.
Now, you might be asking yourself, â€œWhat is the fuss? Who cares?â€ Iâ€™m not writing this to confess starfucker tendencies (which, yes, I might have were this Thom Yorke or Elvis Costelloâ€¦ but not Norah Jones). In fact, I donâ€™t even listen to her music all that much, though I think sheâ€™s quite talented. No, the importance for me is simply in how the statement â€œNorah Jones opened for meâ€ contrasts with the theme of my last blog entry entitled â€œHow I opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd.â€ I am vindicated. â€œAmericaâ€™s sweetheart swears like a sailor.â€ It has a nice ring to it (though to be accurate, I can only implicate her other band members in the cussing binge).Â A baited pitch, a hook, a hook to hang some words on.
Photo courtesy of Chris Robley
Â My day job (8 hours a day, 5 days a week) is to listen to music made by independent artists from all over the world. For a music geek, itâ€™s pretty much the dream job. But you know, every silver lining has a dark cloud. Every gift horse has a mouth. And even dream jobs are, wellâ€¦ jobs.
The lovely music distribution company I work for gets 200-300 new album submissions each day, an incessant deluge of music of all styles, stripes, and standards. Right now, there are more people on the planet, with more leisure time than ever before. The recording technology is better and cheaper than ever before. And you know there is never any shortage of opinions or ideas. So, a handful of us editors have the privilege of sifting through the haystack for audio diamonds. There are quite a few good albums every day, and some absolutely terrible ones. Some that are so terrible they circle right back around on the continuum of taste into the â€œitâ€™s so bad itâ€™s goodâ€ category. And then there is the great gray expanse in the middle ground â€“ the mundane, the blah zone, the albums that elicit no response at all.
Itâ€™s an absolute joy to discover the gems. But I have to remember that there would be no precious stones at all if it werenâ€™t for the force of all that mediocre sand, earth, and sediment pressing down upon them. So, fatiguing my ears day after day while listening to bland bands and safe, boring, unadventurous albums is entirely necessary. I am brought to life when I do happen upon a daring, emotional, smart, visceral musical statement. But half the excitement of those moments comes from their sudden and stark contrast from the soil of mediocrity I toil in every day. Iâ€™m not saying you canâ€™t just put the needle on a new record and recognize its greatness. You can. But youâ€™re going to relish that record twice as much when itâ€™s contextualized amongst more cautious and lackluster contemporaries.
So what do we do when we find these albums? Write about them. Tell our friends and co-workers. Hit the album stacks again to look for the next good thing. But there is joy amongst the more tedious listening as well. Itâ€™s a great glimpse into a certain slice of humanity, the expressive artistic spirit.
We also have the best birdâ€™s eye view of something much uglier, the dark unmentionable realms of the self-marketing mind. Promotion is a dirty game (that I engage in regularly), but some folks are flat out silly about it. Every day I see something in an artistâ€™s bio that says, â€œShared the stage with Kanye West, Shania Twain, Everclear, U2, Fela Kuti, and Frank Sinatra.â€
We laugh. To have played with such famous people in such varying genres is simply incredible. This artist lives in a mystical town that has a great, large, live venue, but at the same time is sooooo small that this act is also the ONLY one that ever gets chosen by local promoters to open for such big names. That is one possibility. Or maybe itâ€™s that they performed at a festival at noon and 12 hours later those bigger acts took the stage. Or maybe they played at a 5-day festival that all those artists played at on 4 different stages. Or maybe they played on the same stage that those other bands have played on, but at completely different times, days, years. If this is the case, then I have shared the stage with Nirvana, Wilco, Little Richard, Elvis Costello, MIA, The Shins, Pearl Jam, and many more. Or maybe these folks are so desperate to poke out in this oversaturated music market that theyâ€™re just simply lying. Whatever way you slice it, its entertaining fiction to read.
Anyways, that long-winded intro leads me to the real point of this entry, which is to say that I just experienced the proud honor of â€œsharing the stageâ€ with Lynyrd Skynyrd. My life is now complete. Pin a ribbon on me. Iâ€™ve won. Iâ€™m done.
Truth be told, it was a surrealist rock nâ€™ roll hell ride into the absurd. Now let me insert a disclaimer here, lest I get myself in trouble. I LOVE the McMenamins brothers and their kingdom of hotels, breweries, bars, and restaurants that generously support musicians from all over the Northwest. Iâ€™ve played many of their venues as a solo act and have had nothing but the finest performance experiences. They pay well. They give you drinks and food for the effort, too. And over the last couple years, Iâ€™ve done a number of shows at the Edgefield Winery Hotel that they run in Troutdale. Itâ€™s a pretty ideal gig. In a small, shotgun wine cellar, I sit at the end of the cellar strumming and singing for two hours. Hotel guests meander in and out as they please, sampling wine, listening, maybe buying a CD or T-shirt from me, then moving along. Itâ€™s great. I do band shows in Portland, and solo shows in Troutdale. And since there are plenty of hotel guests wandering around I donâ€™t feel the pressure to convince a ton of people to drive from Portland to see the show. The place has a built in crowd. That isâ€¦ until Skynyrd came to town.
Now let me back up a few weeks here. A lovely, supportive friend of mine who does booking for the Edgefield asked if Iâ€™d like to play on the same night as Ringo Starr. I love these McMenamins solo gigs, so Iâ€™d have said yes even if it were a Tiffany reunion tour. But a fucking BEATLE? Of course! Ringo wasnâ€™t going to be performing in the tiny, shotgun wine cellar, though. Heâ€™d be playing at the Edgefieldâ€™s outdoor amphitheatre located about 100 yards away from where Iâ€™d be playing. But still, I thought it would be fun. The booker asked if I could spin the evening for some press coverage, so I decided Iâ€™d do a night of â€œSongs by the OTHER Beatles!â€ (as if the OTHERS were the forgotten ones whose tunes were rarely remembered). Easy enough, I probably know two hours worth of John, Paul, and George tunes already, so it wouldnâ€™t require much extra effort.
About a week before the show, I happened to be at Edgefield for a friendâ€™s wedding. At a dull point in the reception I went to the front desk and asked about getting a room for the night of my show. Normally, theyâ€™re very nice and give you a room on the cheap. Itâ€™s a winery after all, so itâ€™s nice to hang around after the set to eat, chat, and drink. Anyways, the girl at the front desk, who mustâ€™ve been 16, said, â€œOh, Iâ€™m sorry. Some guy named Leonard is performing that night and all his fans are staying here. Theyâ€™ve booked the whole hotel.â€ Some guy named Leonard? Ringoâ€™s real name is Richard, right? Hmmm. And then it hit me, sudden, and hard, like an Idaho truck flying a confederate flag! OMG! Skynyrd.
The night of the show, I am slotted to play from 7pm to 9pm in the winery. The boys from Alabamaâ€¦ I mean, Florida, are scheduled for 7 pm to 9 pm out on the lawn. Sounds like an old math problem from elementary school:
â€œIf a whole hotel is rented out by Skynyrd fans, and Skynyrd is playing at the hotel, how many people go see the OTHER band that is playing elsewhere on the property at the same time?â€
Well, simple logic reallyâ€¦ zero. Actually, my wife came along. So I had one fan/indentured family member with me. I played three or four songs to the empty room and then an absolute miracle happened! Five people walked into the winery and sat down at the table right in front of where I was performing. The thrill of having an actual audience dimmed quickly though, when I realized they planned to talk loudly over my whole set. Now, Iâ€™m not a total primadona. I donâ€™t expect to perform at a winery and NOT be background music for some folks. But do you have to sit right in front of me and talk THAT FUCKING LOUD!!!!!???? There are about 15 tables towards the back of the room. Those look nice, donâ€™t they? And I might add here, for the sake of clarity, that their conversation was SO loud that I could understand every word of it while I was singing fairly loudly myself. Do you understand how loud that is? I have my own physical and mental hoops to jump through while remembering lyrics, moving two hands appropriately to play guitar, singing, etc. And over all of that, I hear the following:
â€œItâ€™s so nice here.â€
â€œEverybody is soooo polite out here.â€
â€œYeah. Itâ€™s not like back home in Boston where everyone is rude.â€
â€œYeah. I went to DC the other day and people are flat out hostile. Downright rude.â€
â€œItâ€™s so nice here. Everyone in Oregon is sooooo polite.â€
Jesus, the irony. If everyone is â€œsooooo polite hereâ€, and you enjoy it sooooo much, why donâ€™t you take your cue from the surroundings and shut up!? I was bitter and insulted. My wife looked like she was going to strangle them. Sheâ€™s from New Jersey, and despite living in blissed-out, â€œsoooo politeâ€ Oregon for five years, can still tap into that downright rude hostility every now and again when itâ€™s appropriate, and done in healthy moderation. I stopped her with my eyes. I doubt the McMennamins brothers would invite me back if my wife killed some of their hotel guests. I opted for a simpler solution. I decided to sing louder. They countered my move and talked even louder. I ended my song. In the break, while I was trying to decide which of my tunes was most obnoxiously off-putting so I could play that one next, one of the East Coasters asked â€œHey, do you know â€œImagineâ€ by John Lennon?â€ Ha!
Maybe these people traveled from some infinitely distant-yet-right-next-door quantum universe where they received the press release (which never went out) about me doing a show of â€œOTHER Beatlesâ€ tunes. Bizzaro invaders! I can play that damn song on piano and guitar and banjo and probably on kazoo, too. But I played dumb instead. I said no. â€œItâ€™d take me a while to figure out,â€ I explained. Then I launched into a few bars of Sweet Home Alabama, which was in the same key as the loud song Iâ€™d decided to play. Right as I heard one of them shout, â€œHey, you canâ€™t do that!â€ I transitioned into my own song.
(This is a good time to interrupt the narrative to ask a very important question: If you request Freebird at a Skynyrd concert, are you being post-modern?)
I sang my OWN song. Loud. They got louder. I got louder. They talked louder. I got LOUDER. They started shouting at one another to keep the conversation from being overtaken. Then I screamed (not randomly, though.) I screamed exactly in the same spot I always scream in this particular song. But I think they felt the stinging vitriol of my venomous voice because they got up and left. Ahhhh, politeness, the inbred cousin of passive aggression.
The second hour of my set proceeded without event. My wife sang along when she felt the spirit come over her. She read a book at other times. Once or twice she got up to get us some wine. The bartender (the only other person in the wine cellar) would clap at the end of songsâ€¦ so polite. Then 9 pm rolled around. Literally, the MOMENT I ended my set, a huge crowd of drunks from the amphitheatre burst through the door and charged for the unisex bathroom. I had to relieve myself as well, so I got in line, blended in, and made quick friends with the Southern Rock fans.
I excitedly asked questions like, â€œDid they play OOOOHHHH That Smell?!â€ without tipping them off to the fact that the question, in and of itself, was a fully formed joke with a setup and a punchline. â€œYes,â€ they said. â€œIt was awesome.â€ I saw a 60-year-old man doing the little-boy pee-pee dance and then run outside to piss behind some bushes. I saw frat-tastic kids yelling at their â€œBitches.â€ I heard cogent and persuasive arguments about why the flag of the Cross of St. Andrew is NOT a racist symbol. I heard a man say that Skynyrd performed better tonight than when he saw them in the 70â€™s. I didnâ€™t even want to delve into that one as half the band has been replaced since then due to famously tragic circumstances. Yep. We needed to get out of there. It was time to go.
My wife and I waded through sloshy, inebriated folks until we got to our car. Then we cautiously navigated through a sea of stumbling drunks. I donâ€™t want to suggest that this picture Iâ€™m painting rings true for all Skynyrd fans. In fact, Iâ€™m well acquainted with a number of Skynyrd fans that are quite responsible, respectable folks. But I didnâ€™t see a single, sober one of them there that night.
I pulled onto I-84 and headed back to Portland, drove for about 10 minutes, and then, like an illuminating ray of clarity, I heard the following words of wisdom being sung (as if to me) on the oldies radio station:
â€œGot to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues, and you know it donâ€™t come easy.â€
Am I paid up yet?
In the interest of full disclosure- I own Lynyrd Skynyrdâ€™s Greatest Hits on CD.
Photo courtesy of Chris Robley