+ Matt de Harp’s Canada/USA tour diary
+ Matt de Harp’s Canada/USA tour diary
Thursday, March 1st
I’ve never seen so much slush and melted snow! These puddles are so big you could go snorkeling in them. In fact, I almost did.
So far we did not see much of Toronto. I’m using a moment of quiet after breakfast to send the first news and catch up on the booking business on my little laptop. We don’t have an adaptor so it should run out of batteries soon. Mark has gone outside to investigate (brave man... watch those puddles!).
The flight was exhausting, we landed late because of a snow storm (they have them quite a bit over here). Then we couldn’t get an internet connection to find out about our rented car info and the phone lines were down because of the snow storm. I finally had to persuade the local Sheraton Hotel to let us use their shiny office computer and that sorted things out. They must have sensed that we would end up sleeping in their plush lobby if they didn't help a bit. We would have, too...
We arrived in downtown Toronto a few hours later, to find that it was impossible to park for free: the snow-plow might scratch your car in the morning, or maybe just plow it away! So we had to leave the car in a private parking, like everyone else seems to do here: only 20 dollars a night. 14 Euros. Bargain.
On the good side: they have great pancakes and it’s sunny today and they’re playing Chuck Berry, The Beatles and The Supremes in the hotel lounge. Can’t be that bad...
Reaching Oshawa (pop. 4700) didn't prove very difficult: about 45 min east of Toronto, the little community looks like a typical middle-class suburban town.
Take everything you saw or heard about a poor, no-way-out hole-in-the-ground factory town. Multiply this by a hundred, add a good few fat girls in jogging pants and a couple of working-class psychopaths, et voila! Oshawa in a nutshell. All this amongst grey skies, even grayer concrete blocks, an icy wind and not much else. There is a small stage at the end of the "Atria", the bar where we are playing, just in front of the greasy kitchen. They make a mean chilli there, by the way. A couple of plastic buckets next to the stage are slowly filling with melting snow dropping ever-so-slowly from the ceiling.
We get to the bar relatively early. Dino, the boss, is nice enough: "make yourselves at home" he says, then walks off clutching an open whisky bottle. Back outside, the shops are depressingly cheap and unimaginative wares are scattered in their windows like broken toys, covered with dust. Of course we made instant friends with the local jakeys and other crack heads. They could tell we were novelty...
The show was quite fun but surreal: half the band had almost lost their
voices. We had no monitors, so could not really hear what we sounded like.
We were opening for 2 Death Metal bands. Hilarious.
After the show the soundman called a friend's mother who set us up with a cheap motel room that looked like something straight out of a road movie. Joe and Craig had to be smuggled in after the good woman had gone, 'cause we only had enough cash to pay for 3 of us. I kept expecting drunken rednecks or local police yobbos to burst in, then run us out of town covered with tar and feathers.
That didn't happen. Next morning we got out of there before it could.
There’s a wave of relief and elation washing over us as we pull in the little town of Wakefield: liquor houses and general stores, it looks like a postcard from 1856, if you don't count the cars and electric wires, of course. We discover we are playing in the local saloon, aptly named „The Black Sheep“, or „Mouton Noir“ in Quebecois. After our visit of the depths of human despair in Oshawa, this feels like a second youth. As soon as we push the doors of the place, we can feel the goodness of it.
The upstairs room is the Dream Backstage: a very comfy living room with nice rugs on wooden floors. We instantly sink into the couch and find the Simpsons Channel. Aaauurgh, feels goood.
We’re openers for a benefit show organized by some of the heavyweights of the local scene. A guy called Jim introduces himself to us as a singer-songwriter from Ottawa. We play a short set of 10 songs and get a good response: handshakes and back-slapping as we walk off-stage, all good this time... to the bar we go, and get to meet a few of the local crew.
The rest of the evening unfolds with a nice pop-rock band and Jim doing his thing: nicely crafted love songs with melodic and introspective overtones. Tony and I are whisked away to a bar next door before the end of the third song. There we meet the local boys and girls who are enchanted by Tony’s rough Glaswegian slur. A very fine evening all in all: we soon scrape our way back to the Black Sheep across the frozen parking lot and crawl in our big double beds upstairs. Mmmh.
Good night, Wakefield, glad to meet you.
I get woken out of a deep sleep in my big feathered bed in the Black Sheep. The boys are ready! In fact, Tony is impatient to repeat the diner experience: cheese and ham and sausages, yarh! On the road! Hurry!
We do find a diner after a short drive. It sits in the bowels of a Quebecois industrial town. We get some amused stares and not a few chuckles from the local lads as we walk through the front door. Big mamas clutching coffee mugs are elbowing their way through the crowd, grumbling in 300-year old French. We soon find a room upstairs and eat our fill. On the menu, the hamburgers become „hambourgeois“ and sour cream „sure crème“...
We arrive in Montreal a couple of hours later, after driving through
rolling fields of snow listening to Dylan. We get kind of misled looking
for our friend Sean’s place and have to ask for directions. Everyone
seems to kinda know where we need to go, but we don’t understand
a word they’re saying. Eventually we do get to Sean’s street,
though. He’s standing outside with a snow-shovel, having cleared
a parking place for us, playing with his dog.
Monday, March 5th
Vikings believed Hell was an icy place, peopled by the souls of the damned howling in the snowy wind for eternity. Canada in the winter is a lot like that.
I must say I woke up in high spirits, though, and incredibly early: 8 o'clock!... of course, I’m still jet-lagged. Well, never mind. I proceeded to clear the kitchen-table of all the empty beer bottles from last night. Good thing we got a cab back from the bar... we walked all the way there, through the snow and in the icy wind, I could not have faced walking back the same way again.
Sean's girlfriend Orit is letting us use her flat, a real Ali-Baba's
cavern, full of books and pencils and blankets and tea-bags and stuff
(she works as a Hebrew teacher downtown).
I kinda got lost on the way back from a walk downtown, although I knew the general direction of Sean’s place and finally found it without much trouble. The wind had abated somewhat and I found myself sifting through snow drifts and along a frozen canal. It felt like something out of „The Deer Hunter“, all this industrial desolation combined with the still beauty of fresh-fallen snow. Crows cried overhead. I was feeling light-headed and almost elated by the cold, maybe I was already starting to freeze to death. They say it’s absolutely painless, you just fall asleep with a dumb smile on your face.
Well, not me. Made it home, eventually.
As it was -44 Celsius , we spent the day huddled in Sean’s kitchen,
listening to his seemingly interminable flow of stories and anecdotes,
smoking his tobacco and eating vegetable stew made by Tony. We also used
the day to catch up on e-mails and do a bit of laundry.
As a consolation we hoofed it to the late-night diner around the corner
with Sean's sister Shannon and gorged shamelessly on local specialties
like „poutine“: basically, a bunch of French fries covered
with melted cheese and smothered in gravy. In Shannon’s words: „bad
news in a bowl“.
Our drive to Toronto is pretty mellow. Sun is shining, Sean is talking
non-stop, running commentaries on each song Joe chooses to play on the
car’s stereo. Music is a bit like politics: it can make new enemies
out of old friends in seconds if you don’t watch out..
All right, today is the Big Day. We're performing our showcase for CMW. I wake up in a sweat, nothing nerve-related, though: this room is so over-heated, Tony says it's "like sleeping in a Calcutta sickroom".
It is early afternoon when we walk to the Grand Hotel York to get our festival passes, which we'll end up not using, but hey, what the hell, at least we got freebees: a bottle of water, a can of Red Bull and a free copy of Public Enemy’s latest album (their singer Chuck D is the keynote speaker this year). We have a brief walk through the varied stands: digital technologies and on-line radios, and a conference room with great speeches like: "Music On Air: Is Your Song Ready For Radio-Play?" (I hope not, seeing the crap they're playing on radios worldwide) or "Millions Of Dollar dedicated To Music Not Being Used: How To Get Your Share" (damn good question, I had been wondering as well).
Sean's dad had invited us back to his place for an afternoon roast. Nice guy, he works as a care-taker in one of the richest areas in Toronto. Got ourselves a prime parking spot behind his apartment block and sat down in the living-room watching hockey and drinking root-beer while he regaled us with stories about his childhood up north in New-Foundland and Labrador, then we sat around the kitchen table and devoured one of the best roasts I've ever tasted, complete with boiled carrots, spuds and cauliflower.
We hurry out of Terry's place to make it on time at the venue for 6.30: that's the official sound check time. Of course there are 3 other bands before us and they're running late and the technical gear is kinda crap, but what the heck, there's a cheap Chinese fast food joint around the corner: 2 dollar beers for 2 Dollar Bash, sounds good enough for Tony and me.
The show turns out great, although we'll learn later there was some kind of Awards Ceremony on the same night, so none of the ill-famed Promoters and Producers showed up. Even if they had, they're quite busy "networking" most of the time. It didn't matter to us, though, because we played an absolutely rocking set and gathered great vibes from all the other bands.
I swear if we ever get back to Canada (and especially Montreal), we'll
be well connected: we must have met most of the local folk scene on that
After hanging out most of the afternoon in the hostel lobby (we had to vacate the room at 11 am) and meeting Andrea for a good-bye pint of Guinness at some very up market Irish bar downtown, we finally get on the road about 5pm. London, here we come...
Dan, the drummer in with Sean's band back in Montreal, mentioned the
fact he grew up near there. According to him, London is quite snobbish
and "filled with trophy wives and their gorgeous daughters".
Well, at least that was reassuring, I mean we weren't gonna land in a
hole like Oshawa, right?...
Wow, this should be fun. I get the feeling the only "trophy wives" we gonna see here are probably stuffed on the mantelpiece, coming down with bad cases of divorce and quayludes addiction. Should be great, yep.
Well, it doesn't turn out that bad after all. the barman is a youngish
guy who seems genuinely pleased to see us. He's a piano player himself,
he says. Within minutes we're sitting with a pint in front of us and the
sound system is blasting "Changes" by David Bowie. I start to
relax a bit. As long as they keep bringing the beers in and playing good
stuff, I think I can handle this...
We pray to whatever gods we have they'll let us in.
We clamber out of bed on a cold and foggy London morning. Outside, the streets look like a stage set for a post-apocalyptic horror film. It’s 7 in the morning and the coffee down at reception is nowhere near strong enough. Luckily the corner shop is open: we stuff ourselves with samosas and empanadas on the sidewalk, while a few birds chirp about, hoping to catch our crumbs. Thus revivified, we hit the road.
The country roads toward the border are quite spooky as well, what with
the omnipresent fog covering the rolling fields still white with snow.
The end of the world... and we’re plowing through it.
The arrival at the border is pretty spectacular: we’re queuing along a massive bridge spread across the waters between two opposite shores of a majestic lake. Beyond the iron railings, the horizon spreads silver. As we’re stuck in the traffic waiting to pass customs, I spot a sticker on the railings. It reads: „Fat Bastard World Tour“. Whoever these guys were, they must have been stuck in traffic here, too. Hope they let them through. Hope they let us through.
And as it turns out, the customs check-in is quite an anticlimax in its
lack of thoroughness. Some old guy basically stamps our passports with
very few questions and a very easy-going attitude. Tony reckons we got
lucky: this guy was in his fifties, probably not very eager to bust terrorists
at this point. More like: he’s looking forward to his doughnuts
and coffee break. Good for us. Craig is having to wait a little longer:
he’s the only one with a green card, so, of course, he arouses suspicion...
And that was that. We got through. Now where’s a good American burger joint?
We rolled into Chicago last evening as the sun was setting on the city skyline. Massive glass towers glinting in gold and amber. Freeways stretching out in all directions. Down in south Chicago, the home-boys cruise around in their big SUVs, staring at the lads lined-up for a long-awaited piss-stop against a picket-fence.
Joe’s friend Anna met us at a recording studio she’s working
at downtown, then took us to a place called Wonderbar, a little drinking
hole where we played yet another show. Our friend Benjamin Ezra made the
effort to come up from Lafayette, Indiana, to hang out with us. He’s
a very young and talented singer-songwriter and he’s about 7 feet
Next day we’re all more or less refreshed. I’m still kinda
sick but two glasses of white laced with pain-killers soon take care of
that. Ben Ezra has got to catch his train back home sometime in the afternoon,
so Joe and I decide to walk him downtown and take the L-train to the Millennium
Park. The L-train is similar to the S-Bahn, but much more ancient and
beautiful, especially the stations: they still have the old metal framework
and wooden boards from the old days. Quite amazing it’s still in
such great working order.
On our little walk we did spot an Irish bar and, since today is a day
off, we figure it would be good to try and blag a gig somewhere, maybe
pass the hat and make a few bucks extra. The pub owner is pretty open
to the idea, since it’s almost St Patrick’s day and they have
the Parade downtown (which we missed, by the way). So we agree to be there
at 7 pm and do a few sets.
The pub is packed with very loud Irish Americans by the time we get there.
It’s a real struggle to hear ourselves above the shouts and hysterical
laughter, never mind being heard by anybody else, but eventually the God
of Traveling Musicians prevails: it so happens that the boss is there
with all his family. He’s absolutely massive, with shoulders the
width of a small pick-up truck and hands the size of my whole head. He’s
of Irish descent. He’s drunk. And he loves country music.
We had planned to leave Chicago in the early hours of the morning, but Big Billy’s generosity last night had a lasting negative effect: namely too much whisky equals very little motivation to get out of bed.
After much fumbling around and a few aspirins, followed by tearful goodbyes
(Anna and her friends are some of the coolest people we know), we manage
to get on the road around midday. In front of us, an 18-hours drive awaits.
As it turns out it takes us 21 hours to get there. Craig, Mark and myself relay each-other through the night. Driving through thick fog, with the roar of the huge semi-trucks and shit country radio for the only company, we plow on. Soon the early morning silvery light illuminates tender green grass and roadside churches. We’re in Texas!
We roll into Austin about 9 am. It’s spring over here! Birds chirping everywhere. Birds you don’t see anywhere else too: blue jays and blue martins and whatnot. You can feel the humidity and fragrance in the air.
We soon find our way to Katz’s on 5th street, Austin’s famous
Jewish deli, open all hours and serving huge portions of gorgeous bagels
and other delicacies: hash browns and pastrami sandwiches, sweet potato
pancakes and enormous home salads, with iced tea of course. So we gorge
on this gargantuan breakfast, then phone our Austin contact, Bill Bunch.
We spend most of the afternoon sleeping. In the evening we get to go to our first tex-mex cantina. The burritos in Chicago really pale in comparison: tamales, guacamole, nachos with black beans and chicken soup, Mexican „Modello“ beers with lemon and rich red wine. We get to meet Kay over diner. She’s another person who totally supported us in Austin, she seems to know the whole town and loves what we do, so she’s on a mission: get us to play and get heard as much as humanly possible. Turns out she’ll do just that, as will become apparent in the following week or so. She’s also the opposite of Bill: where Bill is really mellow and understated in his manners, Kay is full-on to bursting point: she fills up the room, laughs louder, drinks faster and swears better than most Texas honchos you’ll ever meet.
If these two are gonna be our guardian angels, it’s gonna be one hell of a trip to heaven.
We try to get an early start today. We’ve been told to be at the
Aardvark in Fort Worth at 6 pm for sound check, and it’s a 6 hour-drive,
so we attempt to be on the road at noon and, of course, fail miserably.
Because, of course, we have to meet everyone for SXSW registration downtown
first. Of course, Mark is staying at Kay’s with his wife Corinne
(who flew in to hang out with us last night) and Craig, while the rest
of us are at Bill’s. Of course, the town is crawling with traffic
(there are about 3000 bands who came to Austin for the same reason we
did) and no-one in the registration center seems to have a clue about
what’s going on or where to get our passes, little wristbands, etc.
We’re finally on our way to Fort Worth, home of TCU, “Texas
Christian University“, where every teenage girl weighs more than
your mother, and every one of her boyfriends' accumulated IQs are still
lower than those of your favorite pets. Fort Worth, whose name invokes
images of cavalrymen trapped by ferocious Sioux warriors under a blistering
heat, but which doesn’t quite come up to these romantic (and frankly
quite stupid) expectations in the raw light of day... Not quite. We arrive
at the club almost on time and it turns out it doesn’t matter after
all, since the sound guy doesn’t show up until 8 pm. The kid who
opens the door tells us all this info in two or three grunts. He looks
like a cross between a retarded farm-hand with freckles and Gimlet the
Dwarf with a baseball shirt. He also sports an impressive scar across
the whole left side of his neck. Knife fight? Car crash? Did he end up
chewing glass to impress his boyfriend? Endless possibilities exist.
The first band is impressively boring so we wait outside for the second band. There are 4 bands on tonight, which is a pretty silly way to book a small town club during spring-break on a Wednesday night, if you ask me. But hey, nobody did ask me, so I guess I’ll shut up, just wait for my turn and hang in there.
Wait a minute.
Our set turns out pretty okay, although most of the teenies leave the
room halfway through. They came to cheer for their mates, not us old farts.
The band who’s waiting to play after us is quite impressed, though.
They’re called Machine Gun Hand. They’re absolutely great.
One of the coolest sounds I’ve heard in a long time.
But even we have to go. Bill has found us a local folk bar where we end the evening jamming around the table and drinking Guinness. Eventually, his friend J.-Nile takes us back to his house where he introduces us to his collection of small dogs and a few classic anti-Bush theories. So it ends up nicely after all, we’re quite content with our little trip and our new-found friends.
A definite highlight of our stay in Austin was Rocky Eriksson´s benefit show at Threadgills, home of the once-legendary Armadillo Headquarters. It seems that after a number of years being locked-up in mental hospitals and forced to undergo electro-shock treatment, the legendary Texas singer from the13th-Floor Elevators is finally able to enjoy his freedom and take to the stage with the same haunted fury that made his fame back in the days. Tony, Mark and especially Joe were absolutely blown away, seeing and hearing him in the flesh: they told me that some of their best memories were of psychedelic experiences listening to his albums back when they were teenagers . T-shakes, Mark and Corinne were stuck outside, watching over the fence, but Rocky´s little brother (who also happens to be his legal guardian) opened the side door and let them in after a few songs. Rocky wailed through all his greatest songs for more than an hour. His guitar player must have been in his early fifties but was pulling some of the most manic faces I´ve ever seen while unleashing some ferociously blistering riffs. "A great moment of rock n` roll history", said Tony afterwards. I hadn't seen Joe smile that much in a while.
We did get to see some other pretty cool bands: local guitar and fiddle
whizz Erik Hokonen playing
But we mostly had our own playing to do, especially since Kay kept firing
up new connections for gigs every single day: this being SXSW, we just
had to play and be heard as much as possible. And play we did. Three gigs
a day for 5 days, I won´t trudge through each one of them because
I don´t want to bore anyone and I can´t remember them all,
but here is what comes to mind: a good few Irish bars in and around Pecan
Street (the famous 6th Street, musical spine of the city), a hippy tavern
in South Austin (and one of the only pictures we have from the tour, our
camera decided to die on the first day. Oh, well...), the parking lot
of a rock n roll bar by the university, even a soup kitchen (Tony´s
favorite)!. Our SXSW slot was scheduled for March 17th (St Patrick´s
Day), in Jovita´s again, an absolute blinder: we had two beautiful
latina girls in full flamenco regalia
Nevertheless my favorite gig of ours took place at Bill Bunch´s
house the next night. Bill had
The last day in Austin started like any other. Tony was sitting in the
backyard nursing one of Doctor Bunch´s Hot Weather Cocktails (white
rum with pineapple on ice, amazing), scratching his head about how we
were ever gonna repay Bill and Kay and all these other folks for all their
help and kindness. The thing with these Texas people is that they won´t
accept any thank-yous or food or gifts or even money for their hospitality,
so much so it's almost frustrating. So eventually T and Joe came up with
the perfect gift: they wrote a song (which you can hear on our myspace
The ride from Austin is absolutely glorious. The sun is shining and we’re still high from all the good vibes we got in Texas. We’re driving between walls of solid green as soon as we reach Louisiana, sometimes across massive bridges literally built across the swamps: the trees are poking out of the silvery waters where the muskrat and the alligator lay. Meanwhile Bill Hicks is ranting away on our stereo: the contrast between his caustic wit and the peaceful beauty outside is unsettling, but it makes for a fun ride at least.
We reach Lafayette in late afternoon. Looks like a nice enough town. We find the Blue Moon easily enough: it’s a cool little wooden shack built as a music space just on the side of a youth hostel. We get greeted with warmth by the young woman who works there and a few of the guests, among which a New-Orleans guitar player who’s just recovering from a crippling hand infection and an older Cuban gentleman who makes his living working odd jobs to support his "art": wooden puzzles carved in heart shapes. I retire to the car to finish all the crawfish with hot dip Bill Bunch left us before we left, along with his favorite ice box (he filled up our gas tank without us knowing as well). The rest of the lads hang around drinking cold beers. Touching base again.
The show turns out to be quite disappointing, unfortunately. Perhaps exhaustion following the Austin onslaught or maybe the wrong audience, hard to tell: they seem to hold back a bit, it’s always hard to say why and sad to behold. People prove quite friendly and communicative after the show, though. I even get to meet my first Cajun guys, a couple of very drunk guys from Bayou Mamou, not far apparently. Their brand of French is quite understandable but miles apart from any other jargon I’ve come across so far. They take me across the street to another bar, along with a Belgian girl who works as a French teacher in the local high school: I don’t know if she’s any good at teaching, but boy, she sure can drink! She’s putting the rum away like it’s apple juice, while some rock band kills any attempt at intelligent communication. Suits me fine: I don’t feel like talking much (for once) and they’re pretty good (although they had a terrible name I can’t remember) and the guitar player sports the wildest afro I have ever seen. Thing must be about 4 feet wide, a wonder he gets through doors without getting caught. The place is nicely decorated, looks like a 18th century Creole whore-house, with big heart-shaped golden mirrors, scarves and pearl necklaces hanging in grapes everywhere (the last apparently a mardi-gras tradition). Soon everyone is absolutely plastered, the party slowly patters out while I watch on in an exhausted but happy daze. We made it to Jimmy Wayne’s home state. Tomorrow we drive on to Tallahassee, FL. Home state of Sharla June and The Mayhaws.
We had planned to play in Pensacola the day after the Blue Moon gig,
but there had been some trouble with the booking and we found ourselves
without a gig, so on the spur of the moment our friend Sharla arranged
us a session in an Irish bar in her hometown of Tallahassee, Florida.
After an evening of reminiscing and tale-swapping, we had most of the
next day to enjoy the beauty and peace of Sharla’s house. Tony and
Craig were doing their best to follow Scottish football by any means available
(and no matter what the results), Joe was out wandering the streets in
search of an internet cafe and some postcards, Mark was at the fruit market
with Sharla and I was standing on my head in the zen-like garden. Later
in the afternoon, Sharla introduced us to southern food and what was to
become a culinary obsession for the rest of our trip: collard greens.
God, I’d kill for some right now...
The next day was spent just as leisurely: we went for a boat ride on
the river where they filmed the early Tarzan flicks and Creature Of The
Black Lagoon back in the fifties, saw some alligators and a bunch of multicolored
swamp birds. Gators don’t seem as fierce as one would first assume,
they mostly float about in a daze or lie digesting in the sun. I guess
it wouldn’t be much fun to run into them at feeding time, though.
We spent the evening in the small town of Havana (nothing to do with its groovy Cuban counterpart) eating more delicious southern food and ended up jamming with the Mayhaws in an old biker’s yard. Craig even got to meet an ex-lobbyist who drives a Jaguar with "PANTHER" number plates and keeps two big white tigers in captivity at her ranch, but that’s a story we’ll tell some other time.
As it turns out, the little town of Dahlonega used to provide most of
the gold in the Atlanta area back in the old days. The name is said to
be of Native-American origin, although to us it sounded more like Irish.
We’re playing in the Crimson Moon, a coffee shop and restaurant
manned mostly by students. Beautiful old wooden building, we even have
our little artist quarters and the use of the old-style balcony on the
first floor, with a diving view of the town square and its scented candle
and souvenir shops. The place boasts other posters of singer-songwriters
on tour. A serious music joint, then.
We pull in downtown Athens on a gloriously hot spring day, in front of the Flicker bar, our venue for the night. After downing some cold beers and ditching our stuff, we’re back on the scorching streets and immediately get hassled for loose change by one of the local homies. His hit-up line was great, though: "Hey man, got a couple bucks for me, man? Gotta get some cash so I can find me a nice girl and take her out". Can’t say no to that, bro. He thanked us and gave us a silly hip-hop flyer, which we promptly chucked away.
As we were wandering around the city center, past shady cafés
full of students and the university park, we suddenly bumped into the
very person who sorted us out with our show at the Flicker: Kenny is an
old friend of Joe. He’s also a popular local performer who goes
by the name of Eight-Track Gorilla (he does wear an actual gorilla mask).
The gig at Flicker was great, we were sharing the bill with a local act, some sexy southern gal with a knack for funny songs ("sorry to be rude but I can’t eat this food, I’m a Vegan") and her beardy guitar-playing boyfriend backing her up. Really cool and quirky stuff, loads of people came and the night went into some serious careening from then on. Feeling strangely refreshed, we walked the streets speaking with phony German accents to people even drunker than we were (they believed we were actually Germans!), played a battle against acoustics in the nave of an enormously echoey bar and eventually ended up jamming behind closed doors in a seriously chic Italian restaurant, drinking beer and fine wines until dawn .
I always knew Athens was the cradle of all things civilized...
We wake up feeling horribly dehydrated and sticky (it’s called the Mother Of All Hangovers) in the middle of Kenny’s living room. Built by Kenny’s dad, a well-known architect and town planner in the early 60´s, the house is nestled in the middle of the wooded hills overlooking the southern part of town and is reminiscent of something in Le Corbusier’s style, all sharp angles, big spaces and lots of glass and wood. Unfortunately it has also been left without major repairs since its creator passed away, and is now being drilled through on all sides by carpenter bees: massive buzzing creatures, they don’t sting people but just drill through wood like you and me would carve through cheese. Too much work for Kenny to keep up with. He’s got enough on his hands taking care of his old mother, an absolutely charming old lady who’d love to show us all her scrapbooks.
After shaking our sorry hides into action, we decide to move out for a bit of grub. Led by 8-Track we land in a place that made history by inspiring the name of one of REM´s most famous albums: Weaver D´s "Automatic for the People". The place is really small, a little house on the banks of a river by an old concrete bridge, about 5 tables and a small kitchen occupied by a big black woman and The Man Weaver himself. "Communicate!" he announces as we near the till to order. Does sweet iced-tea come for free? "Automatic". O-okay... Good, then. This fabulous joint serves the best southern home cooking this side of Georgia: catfish and fried chicken with green beans or rice, squash or sweet potatoes and the unavoidable and delicious collard greens. Soon stuffed to bursting point , we give our warm thanks to Kenny and get on the road towards our next gig.
We’re supposed to meet up with the Mayhaws again tonight, they
booked a gig for both of our bands in a place on the outskirts of Atlanta.
I hear this town is massively spread out, so maybe it´s better if
we don’t enter the center after all, we might not make it out. As
it is, the road there takes forever, what with the town's devilish urban
sprawl and the road works all over the place. We still manage to get there
amongst the first, though and it seems to mean we’ll play first
as well, which turns out to be unfortunate since the show starts at 8
pm. We play to a small (but dedicated) audience once again. Actually I’m
so tired after last night I’m glad to finish playing early and being
able to relax afterwards.
We got a final breakfast with Sharla and the others in an area called
Five Points, place called the Vortex. Their menu warns difficult customers
that whingeing is frowned upon and side orders shall not be discussed:
if it ain’t on the menu, they ain´t got it and that´s
that. Refreshingly rude, even though it’s obviously also a smart
It starts raining almost as soon as we enter the state of North Carolina.
The road to Asheville winds through hills and forests which are almost
autumn shades of brown and yellow. Wait a minute, we’re still in
March, right? Seems like we’ve been through all the seasons in these
last few weeks.
He meets us downtown at "Bobo’s", the small art gallery where he booked us to play this evening. I was half-expecting to see him hobbling along on crutches, but he’s driving his old car like nothing happened! After a quick welcome drink we quickly head back to his "family mansion", a small cottage a few minutes drive away, right across the street from a homeless center. Nothing in his life has really changed that much since I last met him in 1997, except the family doesn’t live in the Czech Republic anymore, his older daughter is now a teenager, his youngest (who I never met before) is now a 6 year-old bundle of good vibes and even his Polish wife Dora seems happy to see us bums. Apart from that, the house is the usual charming chaos filled with animals (a small dog and a few snakes, mostly) that I think everyone expected. Dora has rustled up a stew so everyone sits down to eat and chat away, while the snakes hiss, the kids giggle and the dog bounces.
The gig is more of a pretext to get to jam with Dalt´one more time but quite a few folks walk in as the night unfolds. This town seems to have been a magnet for all sorts of long-haired youth since the late 60´s, which tends to encourage progressive attitudes to live music in general. Combine it with the fact it’s a university town and you get the idea. That made for a really good crowd, not counting the drunken asshole that kept trying to play the kazoo on top of everyone (Craig had to make it finally VERY clear to this fellow that his participation was NOT needed). Back at the gaff the night ends as it started, except this time Dora brings out three different kinds of Slivovice (Czech-Polish equivalent of moonshine) she insists on us trying. Ouch.
Needless to say, I hit the sack pretty soon afterwards.
So we managed to leave Dalton and his folks behind, although he was tempted to meet us up in New-York, at least that’s what he told his wife. She just replied he couldn’t leave because she had to go to work and who was gonna take the little one to school, mmh? That seemed to calm him down. We used the lull in the conversation to jump in the car before he could change his mind.
Richmond City looming ahead. First let me say this to all the smokers in America: you people ought to move to Virginia. Being one of the prime tobacco producers in the world since times immemorial, this state is the home of some of the most powerful tobacco industry lobbyists. As a result, cigs are about 3 and 1/2 dollars a pack and you can smoke everywhere, woo-hee! Finally we can poison ourselves in peace! I mean, tobacco is bad enough for you without adding to it the stress of being treated like a leper and the related guilt feelings of shoving your smoke in your neighbor’s lungs. That shit will give you an ulcer before the tobacco does you in, that’s a fact.
We’re sharing a gig with David Judson Clemmons tonight, a Richmond-born
musician who’s been living in Berlin for a while. We met him a few
times already and it’s a nice feeling to share a stage with a familiar
face. The place we’re playing in is a Deli with a music room out
back. The boss is of Greek origin and proud of it too. He gives us some
wise advice: "In life, if you really want something, you just get
back up on your feet when you’re down and keep at it. Me, I was
out of business several times but I kept on trying till I got all this
up and running. I never gave up. I didn’t want the others to be
able to say that the Greek couldn’t do it!". He leaves us with
the run of the place, although his bartender keeps a cold eye on our tab
(wise man, that).
After he gig we end up crashing at one of Dave´s fans and good
friends, a nice big lad who works printing t-shirts, living alone with
his dog in a small house close to city limits and loves to play his drum
set at 7 in the morning while blasting new metal on the radio, as we will
discover next morning.
Friday March 30th
Brooklyn is the home of our good friend Sean Condron, musician extraordinaire
and ex-guitarist and singer of Impure Thoughts, an earlier (and louder)
incarnation of Two Dollar Bash. Another figure from the Prague days who
never would be quite the same again afterwards, Sean moved away from Europe
to help taking care of his old mom, with himself the only surviving member
of his Irish American family. He's a great guitar player who decided to
pick up the banjo one day. So he locked himself up in his room for 5 whole
months, made a pact with the devil and came out playing a storm. When
he's not playing in one of his numerous bands, he tours schools and teaches
the history of American folk music to kids. Check him out on www.seancondron.com.
Sean has organized a couple of gigs today. First we have to do a short acoustic set in Café Barbès, close to 6th ave. After a quick bite around the corner (pizza slice!) we open for a local trio, tea-chest bass included. I don't come across these things very often, but it seems everyone playing them seems to have their own secrets of design and construction. Considering the simplicity of the concept (take broomstick, tie string and fix to center of hollow case/tub, go "twang!"), the variations seem to be infinite. Very good band: the level of musicality in this town is, like everything else here, tenfold what you'd expect. As a French café is always full of French people drinking wine and talking nonsense anywhere on the planet, I got to meet a few of my fellow countrymen in Barbès as well. Even more surprising, they turned out to be members of a Musette and Swing orchestra who some of us jammed with on July 14th a few years back in Berlin! Small world. We had to run to the next show but promised we'd catch up later. We never did, of course: too many things to do.
Hank's, the pub we played at in the evening, was owned by an Irishman
who came to NY more than 20 years back: the place is a good old rock’n’roll
boozer with cold Papst Blue Ribbon, a well endowed waitress with a fearless
look and a pool table we had to move out of the way to clear the stage.
Sound check was a bit stressful since nothing seemed to really work properly
(a typical pub, I told you), but with the Irishman’s friendly help
we got it all up and running only 1 hour late from the advertised program.
Nobody seemed to mind, though, except maybe the lead singer from the band
billed after us, who made it clear his fans were eagerly expecting his
set, so hurry up please, thank you. T's wise diagnosis of the character
was: "He suffers from short-arse syndrome". Indeed, the guy
must have been about 5 feet 4, so it's a distinct possibility. We escaped
from Short Arse for a while and hung out outside smoking tabs, talking
to long lost friends (mostly Dalton's sis who came up with her boyfriend
and our good buddy Jagger) and waited for the highlight of the evening.
By the time Sean's set finally came up, most of the band had already gone
off or had fallen asleep in the car (drunken and tired arse syndrome).
Sean had decided to pick up the electric guitar again for the first time
in a couple of years.
Actually we probably weren't in Soho, but it definitely was raining that
day. This is it, this the end of our tour, the anti-climax, everyone is
exhausted, it’s pissing rain and we only get one free drink. And
it’s Sunday and you can’t find booze anywhere. For information:
if you want to buy anything other than beer be prepared for a real walk-about,
not only on Sunday but any old day. The stores here need a special license
even to sell wine. That sucks, as you can imagine. Especially on a day
Monday April 2nd and Tuesday April 3rd
We decided to take time to enjoy NY for one more day, especially since the weather had turned for the better again. Joe and I took a long walk through Lower East Side, absorbing the sounds and sights of the streets on this, our last day in New York. We also wanted to change a handful of Canadian notes to splash out on some trinkets for family and friends. You know: postcards, the odd t-shirt... I remember witnessing a great brass band playing on one of the main squares. About 6 or 7 black dudes dressed like homeboys but sounding like a mix of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Grand Master Flash. All with wind instruments and drums. Funny how people keep re-energizing modern music by digging further and further into their past: I swear these guys were tapping into the Dixieland brass band's sound. Is this the sound of the future or a last hiccup of the past? I'll leave it for music journalists to decide. I reckon these guys don't care as long as they're keeping their heads out of the water and getting to live a little bit of their dream. It's already a lot. Not many people can boast to have achieved that much. Real musicians might not look so hip or be well-adjusted, but mostly they keep trying, I've seen it on this tour and I respect them for it.
We drive off late at night towards Canada: we figured it might be better to drive through the night than to crash out in the airport (not literally of course). The drive is a dark blur, cut with dotted white lines. Come morning we've crossed the border and are headed to visit Niagara Falls. Of course it's a bit tacky and disappointing, but it's just another bunch of info to save in the hard-drives of what's left of our brains after this 5-weeks odyssey. We manage to catch some sleep in a parking lot off the freeway just outside the airport. Craig gets nervous on the plane, so he's already packing in bottles of beer. Later on he'll get a bottle of whiskey at the Duty Free to top it up. He partakes of it freely and passes it around and the 7-hour flight becomes all the more bearable.
Finally we take our leave at Glasgow airport. I am sitting in the bus
with Mark reflecting on this whole thing: