Tuesday 3/26 Anyone who has read the first two installments of this thing may have noticed that the tone of my entries has tended to be almost pathologically positive in nature – this is due to several factors, chief among them the pure and undeniable thrill of being out on the road doing what I love to do for the first time in a few years – that and some good hangs with good friends. So it’s with some regret that I now have to pry open a crack in the armour and expose the vast chasm of doubt and discomfiture in my soul. The day started pleasantly enough…
I drove the easy 3 and change from Rolla to Kansas City. Headed to my sis’s house. After I got there she took off to pick up her amazingly sweet and intelligent daughter and I settled back on the couch to watch VH-1 “Behind the Music”. Bad Company. I had no idea there were two versions of Bad Company with two lead singers. How strangely depressing that is. Kate and Sophie got back and we had a lovely dinner and conversation time. Always good to see my sis and niece… I had mis-read my itinerary and thought I had to get to the club a little sooner than it turned out I needed to, so after chilling for a bit I said goodbye til next time and headed toward downtown KC and the Czar Bar.
The less said, perhaps, about the Czar Bar, the better. Immediate bad vibe. Never really ascended to anything from there. Luckily the Hot Dog Skeletons (who have been so nice to help on this tour) were there and played a totally rocking set. Also Dave from the band Dead Voices was hanging out, which was cool because Dave’s a great guy and it’s always good to see him. A noise/folk/gothic/country act called Elkheart played a good set. Singer’s got a good set of pipes. I played between them and the HDS. I did what I came there to do, but there was a disconnected, flat-line feeling from the room. Way outta focus. Had to fight it the whole way through. It was a rough one kinda.
Here’s the deal.
I’m not out here doing this because there are a ton of people coming to see me do it. There aren’t, and never have been really. Not doin’ it for the money. Isn’t any really. I’m doing it because I write songs and sing them. Every once in a while I get lucky and write a good one. Good songs want to be holy. My job as I see it is to attempt to elevate these units to a higher state by playing and singing them live in the moment. They have to be alive and breathing. Sometimes I get lucky and one of them feels like it gets holy for a second. Most of the time, it’s a failed attempt. But this is what I go for, EVERY TIME. I’m aware that there are those who may feel that this kind of activity is void, even pathetic – particularly when engaged in by someone of my age and level of commercial viability – but I don’t let that get me down. Cuz, y’know, this isn’t a hobby. This is a sacrament, fuckers. It’s my religion.
Be an artist if you want. Play for keeps. All the way, EVERY TIME. If it’s fun, all the better. I would never presume to offer advice to anyone about being a musician, but I will say this: If you cannot deal and possibly even thrive on solitude, cramped quarters with companions of questionable hygiene and/or ethics on a regular basis, bad food, hideous toilets, both implied and overt dismissal of your life’s work by hateful idiot snakes, and more than likely living one step from the street your entire life – don’t be a publicly performing musician. Please, just don’t. Only do it if A) you can take all this and more without stopping and B) if you honestly know that you have something to say, either with your instrument or your mouth. Then by all means, hop in. You get to know some really beautiful people in this racket. We’ll save a very old burrito for yuh. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.
Long and short of this particular gig: not super fun, not super holy, got fucked somehow outta my modest guarantee, was shot a dismissive, bitter glance by the bartender at one point, and will never play this corrupt, stinking goon-cage again. Movin’ on. Day off tomorrow.
Wednesday 3/27 8 and change to Denison TX. Night off in clean hotel. It’s warm here. I call my sweetheart and then hole up in my room with some cable and a little vino. It’s r&r time. Got some kind of pinched nerve thing in my left leg bugging the shit outta me, I think exacerbated by driving so much. But this bed is comfortable and I can sleep a good long one.
Thursday 3/28 Short drive to Denton. Beautiful day. I see a Starbuck’s and stop in for a coffee. As usual I stashed away a couple extra bagels and some cream-cheese pods from the hotel breakfast scene, so I had dinner. I called awesome songwriter and leader of the recently reactivated Slobberbone Brent Best, he came by and we hung for a bit. Then it was off to do a session for Violitionist, which was really fun. You go in, play three songs and they ask you three questions. The whole thing is recorded and video’d and put up on their website. Check it out. Hung out back at Brent’s for a bit and then got down to Hailey’s, the club I’m playing tonight.
Ryan Thomas Becker, who I’ve seen play a few times down in Austin, is a very busy creative entity up in Denton-world. Tonight he’s doing his Sparklehorse tribute, and has kindly made room for me on the bill. The show’s great. Really fun. Brent makes it down, also Chris Flemmons, whose band Baptist Generals has what’s sure to be a killer record coming out next month, and Scott from Centro-matic. Good hanging with these guys again. The sound is great. I like Denton. One more day and home.
Friday 3/29 I get into Dallas about 3pm, after doing the Waffle House thing. I hang out in Deep Ellum and drink coffee. Playing three sets for a Happy Hour style gig at Adair’s Saloon. It’s a friendly, comfortable and divey joint. Got a lot of songs on the set list today.
I do a short first set, feels solid. Just when I start my second one, my friend Philip, he of the band Mandible and an old-school Austin scene compatriot of mine, shows up with his awesome wife Robin. So good to see them. We hang on my break, they stick through my short final set, we shoot the shit some more and then say goodbye…. I’m anxious to get back to Austin. My bros Grand Champeen are playing with Soul Asylum tonight and I want to try and catch encore.
Adair’s sends me away with better cash than expected and a big sandwich for the road. I make it to Austin in 2 hrs, 35 min. After a brief jam on the bridge over the river, I walk in to the club on “Runaway Train”. Strange gig to see….. but that’s another story.
Farewell, “Stinkin’ Up the Heartland Tour”. Seems like I hardly knew ye. I hope that we will meet again. Work out our differences. Fight the fight. Have some laughs. Thanks to everybody who came out to the shows and helped set ‘em up. You all fucking rule. See you next time!!!
Saturday 3/23 The drive to Madison was fast. I got in about 6:30 and went straight to Kiki’s Righteous House of Music. My first show at Kiki’s. I have been here before though. Kiki was at a gig I played back around ’06 when I was out touring with my buddy and fellow songwriter Beaver Nelson. She was kind enough to put us up after we played that night at High Noon Saloon. Beaver has since been back and played a show here. He did his Macro/Micro multi-media thing, which I highly recommend.
Kiki is a great lover of music and a swell German-stock gal who has been putting on shows in her basement for years now, with all kinds of great artists. (This show that Brien and I played was her 90th one.) She has tons of show posters up everywhere in the house. There’s a PA, lights, chairs and couches set up in the basement for the shows. Awesome set up. Brien shows up about 7 for soundcheck, flanked by his gal Jess and their charming daughter Theia. Jess and Theia hang out while we set up and check. Sounds good. Small rooms always do.
Kiki made a big pan of spinach lasagna, man it was so delicious. Especially after four days of road food. She had salad going, bread and butter, the whole nine yards. Fantastic. After some dinner, me and Brien chill out over cold PBRs while a few people start coming in and local singer-songwriter and all-around nice guy Jay Moran starts his set. Jay plays a nice finger-picking folk thing, with lyrics about small town midwest things. Straight ahead, honest stuff. After his set, we get in there and do about an hour. It’s a relaxed, inspiring set tonight. Me and Brien are really locking in. It’s a small crowd but they seem to really dig it. Some sweet friendly friends of Brien’s from work are in the front row. Freedy Johnston‘s here. It’s the kind of show that’s so intimate it almost stings. But I’m loving it. One of the most fun gigs I’ve played in a long long time. After our set we chat with folks a bit and then load out and head back to Brien’s for the night.
After loading the gear into Brien’s house, we went around the corner and had a few Guiness pints and shot the shit. It had been 5 or 6 years since he and I had hung out, so much has happened and it was good to catch up a bit. This is the first time we’d played shows together since going to Europe in 2007 with “The Spoolies”. That was Ramsay Midwood, Tony Gilkyson, Kip Boardman and myself. We asked Brien to drum on the tour and he kicked ass all around Switzerland, Holland and the UK. That was a good band on short notice.
Madison’s a lovely town. In some ways it has the feel of what Austin used to be like a long time ago, only with a bunch of great old two-story houses. I could probably live here and not get too uptight about it.
Sunday 3/24 In the morning I check the weather online and I see a big red blob that I’m gonna drive straight into, on the way to the next show in St. Louis. Snowstorm, 8 to 11 inches. So I slam some coffee with Brien & fam and hit the road. All is sweet for the first 100 miles or so, then BAM, just like that it’s a stinkin’ whiteout. Road barely visible, slipping and sliding, cars in the ditch. I count 2o vehicles down there then stop counting. I nearly wipe out twice myself. I’m glad at this point that I did a bunch of years driving in this shit, because I know how to do it reasonably safely. But it was hairy, I tell you what.
As I get further south and the air warms up a bit, the snow and ice turns to slush and water, and then it’s a good bit less stressy, just messy. Still patches of ice every now and then, especially on the bridges, so you can’t really let your guard down. White-knuckle style. And now of course, a 6-hour drive has become an over-8-hour one, and I’m late to the gig. Unbeknownst to me at this point, several bars in St. Louis had apparently closed up due to the snow, but the place I was gonna play, Lemmon’s, was planning on staying open. Which they did. I got turned around in St. Louis and it took me a while to locate the venue. Phone dead from long drive, so no GPS or call for directions. I hit a gas station and got the pointer towards my street.
My pal Rche was at the club when I got there and had some drums with him. I suspect this was an extra extra slow Sunday at Lemmon’s in St. Louis, but we played a quick set and hung out with the other folks on the bill. Lemmon’s feels like a Bukowski bar kind of. Like an old 1950s steak-and-martini place that’s gone slowly and painfully to seed and now has rock shows. Pleasant enough, and I was just happy to be off the road for a few hours. Another buddy of mine from Austin, Dan Huck, was playing bass with one of the bands, De Los Muertos. I liked their goth-surf-blues bit. Mt. Thelonious were good too, they did a kind of gyspy-string band western swing thing. The club gave us a pizza for the road and we hit it, drove two hours to Rche’s house in Rolla, MO. What a fuckin’ day!!!!! I crashed hard and slept about 10 hours straight.
Monday 3/25 In the morning, Rche hit me with some of his home-roasted Sumatra. Damn fine cup of coffee! Here is a pic of him with his roasting rig. He buys the raw beans online and then roasts them up in one of those air-pop popcorn popper things. Awesome DIY mud, go Rche!!
All afternoon chill at the house. No hurries. It’s glorious. Rche, ChristyAnn and the kids whip up a real nice dinner and after that we head out to Public House Brewing Co. to load in. It’s a warm and friendly vibe in there. Bartender’s a sweetheart. Their in-house brew is delicious. I like the cream ale. Rche sets up his kit, I get my amp and guitar going, we tweak the PA and hit it. We do probably 75 minutes. Rche and I used to do some of this low-budget touring stuff years ago, and it’s a blast playing with him again. He’s warmed up after last night and he’s hitting it great. Rche’s never afraid to try new stuff on a song, and it’s fun to see where things go. Once again a small crowd, but much appreciative. You never know how things are going to go over in a town like Rolla, but it all went down pretty well I thought. I like this joint. Back to Rche’s for another solid night’s sleep out in the country, then on to Kansas City for day #7, show #7.
Wednesday 3/20 I started out pretty early so I could get to load-in @ Replay by 8 or so, which was achieved. ’97 Corolla gassed up and tires full. Sunny drive. When I got to the club the Hot Dog Skeletons were already there. These gentlemen kindly drove in from KC to do this show with me. It was a good time, even though spring-break was on and Lawrence seemed like a ghost town. Arthur Dodge did a solo opening set. He was telling me later in the night about how he hasn’t been playing as many shows lately because he’s been writing screenplays. He just wrote one about Elvis playing SXSW. Crazy. His set sounded great, and the HDS fellas tore it up.
I love the Replay. It’s one of those joints I’ve been too many many times over the years and it always feels good to play there. Even on a night like this, the handful of people who were there seemed to give a damn and were real nice to us, staff and patrons both. My set felt a little shaky, just okay. I dislike new strings. Guitar will sound better in a couple days. First night, getting my thing together. Semi-fleabag an hour up the road not too bad. Raisin Bran and coffee in the morning.
Thursday 3/21 Get into Minneapolis 5ish. It’s sunny and cold as shit. Turns out it was pretty warm last week but now they’re getting a cold snap. Mm-hm yep gloves and hat come out for load in. Grumpy’s Northeast. I’m doing a happy-hour thing with my old friend Baby Grant Johnson. I used to live right down the street from here about ten years ago. Every Sunday I came in and cleaned the bathrooms and swept and mopped the place and put all the empty glass bottles into cases for recycling. Nobody was in the bar when I did it. I used to throw on CDs of my friends’ bands from Austin while I was mopping.
I go say hi to my buddy Tony Zaccardi who is behind the bar. He sets me up with a Lone Star. Tony looks good. He’s still got that great smile. Good to see him. Baby Grant shows up soon after and begins setting up the PA in between the dart boards. Grant and I have been playing together for a freakin’ long time. I remember sitting with him in the warehouse space I lived in and playing old blues and country songs, circa ’89-90. Back then he schooled me on a ton of early American music that I hadn’t heard before. He was into punk and all that like I was, but he also knew about all these obscure blues and folk greats. We used to play this stuff together in the bars up there all the time.
So we played about two hours at Grumpy’s, switching off and playing tunes together. It was pretty fun. Hadn’t played some of this stuff for several years. Came right back. Folkin’ it up. After the gig, I went over to St. Paul and stayed with my friends Matt and Sarah. Great to see them. We listened to records and had some beers in the basement, with “Renaldo and Clara” on TV in the background. These are two of my favorite people anywhere. And their kids are adorable too. Slept great. I like and miss basements.
Friday, 3/22 Got up around 11 or so. Me and Matt head to this real good lunch place in the neighborhood and we get some take-out. Matt sets up a drum kit and PA and we wait for Brien Lilja to arrive. Brien is playing drums two shows with me on this tour, tonight and tomorrow. Another guy I’ve known and played with for a long-ass time. Brien and I started a punk band called Vile Standards in 1985 with our friend Davin on bass. Subsequently this became a four-piece when our lead guitarist Darin joined. Renamed a couple times, ended up The Draghounds. At one point I changed my name to Mike Fuller in a clumsy attempt to reinvent myself, which is how I’m listed on the cover of our first full-length. Our records were okay. We were a decent live band. We put out one 7″, a 21-song cassette release, one double vinyl and a CD. Here is a post that came in regarding one of our “lost” efforts, an EP that never saw the light of day. Touring with them was what eventually led me to Austin, TX. Anyway, in those days Brien was an absolutely killer drummer, and he still is. Rad songwriter too. His 4-track cassette project Discount Maps still blows my mind when I listen to it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have him onstage with me a bunch of times over the intervening years. Here he is looking intense at the 331 Club.
We had planned to do our rehearsal at Slim & Chrissie Dunlap’s house, by way of saying hey to Slim and throwing some tunes his way, but unfortunately he had to go back into the hospital that day, so that was out. Brien visited him later in the day. He was Slim’s drummer for several years, and has visited Slim a bunch since his stroke. It’s just so unbelievably harsh when such things happen to people sweet as Slim and Chrissie. It’s not been easy on them. We’re all hoping for the best.
So we rehearse in Matt’s basement, and it’s great playing with Brien again. We go over some of my new stuff and it goes well. We’re doing a 90-minute set tonight so I want to make sure he’s comfortable with all the material. As usual, he nails it. We play the 331 Club in Minneapolis. Nice crowd. Jason the sound guy does it right. Lots of old friends in attendance. Keely and Dale from Ol’ Yeller were there. My set felt good. A big improvement from Lawrence. After my 90 with Brien, Baby Grant does his solo set, then I join him for a handful of tunes to close it down. Then crash out about as soon as we get back to Matt and Sarah’s place. Tomorrow, on to Madison.