Friday, August 24, 2007

Wilders Head East...

Editor's note: I am sitting outside at a table in the Speigel Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. I have a few minutes of free time before appear on the Fred Macauley Show on BBC/Scotland. I began this blog almost a month ago and never got a chance to finish it until now.
So, even though it's old, at least it's new to you. Enjoy.

Sunday July 29th, 2007
After two and a half weeks, the Brown Clown is rolling back home. We finished up our tour of the east coast last night, and are now 1544.7 miles away from our own beds. MapQuest says that should take 25 hours and 16 minutes, but with the traffic, road construction, toll booths, and the usual Wilders slowpokeyness, I'd estimate that it will take us more like 30 hours to get back. So I've got plenty of time to catch everybody up on our trip.

Our tour started in Bloomington, Indiana. We played our concert, sandwiched between a fantastic african drum and dance ensemble, and a powerful electric latin band. It was a kind of weird musical gumbo, but it worked. The audience really liked us. I guess with such a diverse three course meal, it was comforting for them to hear some Hank Williams.

The next morning, we got on the road early, arriving in plenty of time for an afternoon performance in the Family Fun Tent at Millennium Park in Chicago. Our sparse audience was made up primarily of toddlers and their parents. Just when I start to think that I'm really making it in the music business, I get head-checked by a gig like this. I mean, Millennium Park on a Saturday afternoon? I was expecting hundreds, no wait, THOUSANDS of people. But the few toddlers seemed to have a great time playing with their hoola hoops and balloons, while we struggled through two suffocatingly hot and humid sets under the big vinyl tent. After the gig, the band split off- Nate and Betse heading north to stay in Skokie with friends, while Ike and I jumped on the L-train to stay in the western suburbs with our old pal (and former Wilders bassist), "Country Giant" Clayton Brown.

We reconvened the next day for a gig at the Chicago Folk and Roots Festival dance tent at Welles Park. It was fun, but the sound bleed from the main stage made it really hard to hear. We were honored to be asked back to this great festival, and made the best of it despite the challenges.

After only 3 shows, we had a precious day off in Chicago. Betse and Nate went to a pool party, while Ike and I just hung out at the house with Clayton. It was great to spend the day doing virtually nothing. We needed to rest up, because the next day, we drove 15 hours to Kutztown, Pennsylvania staying the night with Ike's wife, Carrie. This was a strategic move aimed at putting us within striking distance of NYC, with the added benefit of saving some motel dough. Carrie had the fridge stocked for us and, as always, made us feel welcome for our short visit.

The next day we fueled up and headed into the big bad city. All systems were go, until I tried to take the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan. The toll booth collector looked at our trailer, pointed at several uniform police just ahead and said, "deya nat gonna let yous take DAT tru DIS tunnel" The cops directed me to make a u-turn, and head up the Jersey side to the Lincoln Tunnel. Ok, no problem right? That's just one of the realities of life in the age of new terrorism. Except now it was the beginnings of New York rush hour. I made a few illegal moves to position ourselves onto the choked ramp that leads into the tunnel, and NOW had to merge a full-sized van pulling a trailer into a single lane with 6 lanes of choked New York drivers vying for the same limited space. It was like trying to force a pint of peanut butter into a drinking straw. I learned very quickly that this was not a situation for the meek. I was outsized and outgunned on all sides. I just kept inching forward, and after a bus nearly took off the right wheel cover of the trailer, I closed my eyes, put my trust in the force, and somehow made it into the tunnel. Of course, this was just the beginning of our troubles. The Lincoln Tunnel empties into the middle of Manhattan. In theory, this shouldn't be too hard. Manhattan is 12 miles long, give or take, but only about 2 miles wide. But it took almost an hour to cross over to Queens. We only made about 20 feet per traffic light, but had a great view of the local New York color. At one point, we passed a 6 foot guy with curlers in his hair, holding a transistor radio to his ear and singing verse after verse of Madonna's "Material Girl" at the top of his lungs. It was awesome.

Anyway, we finally made it across the East River into Queens where we were met by our best Brooklyn buddy, Vito. We were late for sound check and Vito offered to hook our trailer on to his SUV and take it to the sewage treatment plant (where he works) for safe storage. Vito's best gal, Jennie hopped into the van, and directed us like a pro to the club. This was to be our first play at The Southpaw in Brooklyn, and we were psyched to play in a different club. We were scheduled to open for King Wilkie from Charlottesville, Virginia, who were in the city to premier their new cd. Also on the bill, were our old friends, The Red Stick Ramblers, from Lafayette, Louisiana. We had a few minutes to wolf down a precious first slice of New York pizza before hitting the stage to open the show. The stress of the drive melted away as we kicked out a rocking 45 minute set to the surprised cheers of the audience. Exhausted, we cased our instruments, and joined the crowd to watch the Wilkie boys do their thing. This is a band that originally formed around the idea of playing fairly traditional bluegrass. But the material they performed from the new album was very different than what we had heard before. The tunes were more poppy- featuring ukelele, lap steel along with the banjos and guitars. It was a really refreshing sound that made me excited to hear the recorded versions. King Wilkie finished their set and then it was Red Sticks turn to hit the stage. When they did, it was like a bomb went off. In my opinion, there is just no better band in the world than the Red Stick Ramblers when they are on their game. After the show, all three bands hung outside the club congratulating each other. It was getting late and Vito took Ike and Nate back to his apartment, while Betse and I headed back across Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel (no trailer this time) into Jersey to stay at a decently priced hotel.

The next morning, Betse and I packed up the van and headed back across Manhattan to pick up the boys. The lunch traffic was even worse than the day before, due to the congestion of delivery trucks in midtown Manhattan. It took us over three hours to make the 2 mile drive across the island. Ike and Nate were waiting for us, and after loading them into the van, we followed Vito back to the sewer to get the trailer. It was quite an experience. The treatment plant is situated right on the East River and smelled, understandably, like a sewer. Vito said, "hey, you see dose tanks up theya?", he pointed to 6 enormous egg shaped tanks behinds. "Each of dose tanks is filled with New York City's shit." We retrieved our trailer, said our goodbyes to Vito, and headed back out onto the highway en-route to our next show. Once we cleared the city, the traffic eased somewhat, and within a few hours, we entered the sleepy little town of Rosendale, New York. This was our second time playing at the Rosendale Cafe', a sweet little 75-seat vegetarian restaurant. The small but appreciative audience made us feel welcome and the show went very well. Ike used the informal setting to debut a new song he wrote recently about an lonely oil-worker in Barrow Alaska. We sat around after the show enjoying the cool upstate New York night, drinking beer and chatting politics with Mark, The Rosendale Cafe' s owner.

We were finished early for the night, and we took advantage of the opportunity to get a good night's sleep. The next morning came and we were again, back in the van to drive about two hours to Ancramdale, New York for our third visit to the massive Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. This is undoubtedly the biggest and best bluegrass festival in the east. As far as attendance and talent, it is on par with Telluride and Rockygrass in Colorado. We made it to the gate in just enough time to suit up, tune up and play a noon set. The crowd was sparse, but they were loud. We did our thing, signed cd's and then hustled over to the dance set for another long set at 2pm. With our work finished for the day, we scouted out some camping spots and settled in for evening. The Grey Fox folks always hire a great lineup and this year was no exception. But the highlight of the weekend for me was sitting at The Red Stick Ramblers' camp watching lead singer, Linzay Young, cook cajun food. The Ramblers had evening dance sets both nights of the festival, and after they killed the crowd, and everybody scattered, Lindsey would start cooking onions in a skillet, over a large propane-fueled open-air burner. I'd watch him stir his pots, add some seasonings and drink a little beer. Then, when things were stable enough, he'd pull his fiddle out and play a tune. The cooking and playing went on for hours as Linzay stirred and fiddled up a huge crowd. I'm not sure if they were drawn by the music or the smell, but suddenly each night, Linzay would grab up a stack of plates and pronounce it "dinner time". I think he said it in cajun french, but everybody knew "dinner time" when they heard it. It was an infectious and gastronomically enriching experience that kept me up late into both mornings.

On Sunday, we bid our goodbyes to the Ramblers and all our other Grey Fox friends, and drove a couple of hours to Northampton, Massachusetts for a gig at the Iron Horse. The crowd was slight, but the few that were there seemed to enjoy themselves. The show was over early, and we headed back to a motel to rest up from the long weekend. Monday was a day off, and we decided to stay another night in this cool little town to see some sights, do some laundry, eat some pizza.

On Tuesday, we headed up to Narragansett, Rhode Island. Our host, Kate had warmly invited us to stay at her house Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. This not only saved us a lot of motel money, it also allowed us to go to the beach, body surf and get some color on our pallid, musician's skins. Our tour continued on Thursday night for a dance performance at The Towers, a Rhode Island landmark. I have to say that it was pretty cool to look out at the crowd of dancers in front of me, and then look behind, out the window of the second floor dance hall, and see the Atlantic breakers crashing into mist on the rocks below us.

Friday morning we loaded our luggage, instruments and sunburns back into the van, and headed north toward Maine. But Boston traffic prevailed and stopped us dead in our tracks for almost 2 hours. A Narragansett resident had warned us of this joking that this was "traffic control by constriction". Knowing this, we had left plenty early, but had no idea that the traffic would be this bad. Once free from the traffic snarl, we stopped for gas and deli sandwiches to let ourselves decompress for a moment before jumping back in the box in a rush to make our 5:30pm load in time in Cornish Maine. We arrived at the Ossipee Valley Bluegrass Festival about 6pm and were surprised to learn that the schedule printed on our contract was incorrect, and we supposed to play in 15 minutes! In true Wilders fashion, we broke out the instruments- tuning up in the humid early evening, and were ready just after 6:15pm. The crowd was friendly, but it had been a really, really long day and we were all happy to get out of the festival as soon as we could, to get to our accomodations for the night. The house where we stayed was very nice, with an outdoor shower and a real horseshoe pit. Nate, Ike and I traded a few rounds of horseshoes before the Maine mosquitos threatened to drain every last drop of our blood. We sprayed on the DEET and then sat outside, trading around Nate's old guitar releasing stress of the whole tour out into the rural Maine evening.

I fixed breakfast for everybody the next morning, and then we headed back out to the fest. We had a great workshop in the afternoon where, basically, the crowd could ask us about what we do, why we do it, and why on earth anyone would pay us to do it. It was humorous for us and educational (I hope) for the crowd. Later that evening, we were the final act of the night, and the folks that stuck around got their money's worth. Ike and Betse were both in rare form especially on their solo tunes.

Before retiring for the night we all agreed, due to everyone's exhaustion, that instead of getting up super early, we would only drive back to Kutztown, PA (supposedly 7 hours from Cornish) to drop Ike off at Carrie's. Then, we could catch a few hours of sleep, and head out for two 8+ hours per day of driving. Regardless of the plan, the east coast traffic prevailed again, and our 7 hour drive turned into 10. We were pooped when we finally got to Carrie's and everybody went straight to sleep.

We woke up early the next morning, bid Ike and Carrie farewell and set off on the highway with about 20 more hours to go. I took the first shift, driving about 5 hours. Then Betse took over and drove another 6. Nate, who had been trying to rest up all day, then took, us all the way across Indiana and Illinois where we collapsed around 11:30pm at one of the most horrible Motel 6's in America north of St. Louis (this experience will be detailed in another blog entitled "CRACK 6!"... I pulled the final drivingshift the next morning (a miniscule 4 hours), back into our Kansas City home. If you'll remember, MapQuest estimated that the 1544.7 miles should take 25 hours and 16 minutes. But with the traffic, road construction, toll booths, and the usual Wilders slowpokeyness, it took us every bit of 30.