This is it – the day six months ago I willed, begged, prayed/made happen (with a lot of Eric’s help). My record release. Thank you God. What does it mean to me to get this record out? Everything. I knew it had to happen when I was artist in residence at a college music class. “When did you last put out new music?” one of the students asked. I groped back in time and mumbled a year: 2012. “That’s five years ago!” one of the kids said. “I wasn’t even in high school yet!” And that was a record me and Eric made. What kind of artist was I?
Going out to play is just getting started and so nerve-wracking. With the record you did everything the best you could but what about playing music for people? That has to happen now, every night.
The first show – the hometown show – I am flying. I’m always afraid to play in the place where I work because I see the people there every day, but the show is like part of an ongoing conversation only I have a guitar, an amp and a microphone, Eric on bass and Jeremy on drums. I refrain from straightening books and wiping things down with a bar rag. We all celebrate.
Brooklyn is another homecoming, to a place I left almost twenty years ago but that will always be part of me. I realize with a twinge of sadness that upstate feels like home now and the city feels like the past – the great love who changed me forever and made me who I am, but my restless soul said I had to move on. (It’s not for nothing I still think Freebird is one of the greatest records ever.)
Lenny Kaye joins us. Hearing him sing and play is decades of music history compressed into his elegant frame and wacky presence. When he rocks alongside us, I can’t help it, I feel like Patti Smith for two seconds.
When I start an old song, people cheer and it stuns me. I add a reading which feels good because I’ve spent so much of the last decade writing and being around books. When the show ends I see a couple of my brothers, old bandmates, friends from the past. It is all over too soon.
At home I pack and ship CDs and booklets. When will the LPs arrive? Probably when I’m away and they will end up buried in snow.
I play a few shows just me and Eric. It’s weird cause together we’re the old band. But it’s comfortable too and helps me get myself grounded a little. In a Harrisburg wine bar, we’re pretty shambling, but it brings me down to earth. I think the first two shows I was kind of in a daze, like opening night of a play but without a script or a director. Pace yourself.
That first hotel mirror at two in the morning is always a shock. Already road-weary. Oh my god, that’s what I look like? You get used to seeing yourself at home, surrounded by your own stuff. By the third hotel room, it’s easier: “oh, I look like that.”
In Pittsburgh, my true hometown, the place I was born and grew up and left at seventeen, we dine at a cool downtown restaurant with my brother Pat and his wife Karen. I look at the wall of bottles filled with whiskey and rye, brisket burgers, tattoed bearded waiters. It doesn’t seem possible this place has caught up with the rest of the world – in Pittsburgh, it will always be somewhere around 1975.
“Where’s the Brass Rail?” I ask my brother. “Remember old Tom who used to cruise (our brother) Michael when he was waiting for the bus home from Isaly’s?” Kaufmann’s became Macy’s was boarded up for years, is becoming condos now. Things change.
“The low spark of high-heeled boys,” says a big, older ponytailed guy sitting behind me in a Pittsburgh coffee shop. I turn to see who he’s talking to. He is on his own. Some things don’t change.
I say hi to my old friend Lonesome Bob. I knew him in New York and then Nashville and now he lives here. His voice shakes the room downstairs which I can sense from the dressing room is not so full. Three rave reviews/articles in the local hometown papers – the music writers love me in Pittsburgh. Things change – that was the title of one of Lonesome Bob’s albums. But I still can’t get more than twenty-five people to come see me play in Pittsburgh.
Philadelphia threatens to be a shitshow – the aftermath of a snowstorm, a neighborhood bar on a bill with a six-piece band, no time or place to change clothes, but ends up a triumph. One for the books, one of the best shows of my life. Wires, wood, beer bottles, cables. People. Funny how some nights the combination just works.
Cambridge, a Sunday night, Oscar night, the aftermath of a snowstorm. I do a radio interview in a guy’s car parked outside of the club – holding a mic with a big ball pop shield, sitting in the front seat of a newish Ford Focus. I get choked up talking about stuff and wonder what a passerby would think at the sight of my radio host and I. Look at the nice retired couple playing radio show: I am Rupert Pupkin, I think to myself. I am Alan Partridge. We blast through the set for a warm crowd. I tell the story of my early band Last Roundup coming here to audition for Rounder Records. How we opened for Sleepy LaBeef, the great rockabilly legend. I remember thinking “Poor old guy! He’s got to be at least fifty!”
How many years have I been coming to this town? Our friend Norma hangs out after and I watch her walk off into the Cambridge night, back into her past, to find her car. We drive the few hours home, staying awake reading a ridiculous Facebook thread on whether Eric Clapton is or is not a decent rhythm guitarist. “Bollocks,” says Eric. Next morning we say goodbye to drummer Jeremy who has work commitments.
I do too. The LPs arrive at Spotty Dog just before my Monday shift – the guy unloads that pallet right into the back of my car. Working behind the bar is almost like a holiday: I show people the record, pour beer, stay off the phone and computer, play music (“Play us your new album!” a nice person says. Uh, no.)
Pack and ship. Pack and ship. Rehearse with drummer Doug. Another snowstorm.
New Haven in the snow. Load in includes Eric shoveling the sidewalk. It’s a quiet night in New Haven, Frank Pepe’s AND Sally’s Apizza have closed due to the weather. But Cafe Nine is great – Paul the owner is a sweetheart – and Shellye and Dean who open are always wonderful. Kid Congo shows up and we play Sex Beat and then Joey Ramone to the small crowd. And in the end Modern Pizza is good – they’re the newcomer in town, only been around twenty five years.
My MAGNET magazine pieces start to run – I wrote two dozen short appreciations, things I like or recommend. I’ve been so crazed I can’t even remember what I wrote about.
Pack and ship, pack and ship. Phone interviews. Another trip to the post office. I have a pair of jeans I need to hem but my eyes feel too tired and threading the sewing machine seems impossible. I roll the hems for now.
Northampton we have dinner with Byron Coley and Lili Dwight in a local institution burger place. Eric makes Byron laugh. Eric makes us all laugh. I never know what to expect in Northampton but Parlor Room is full and they are all with us. I always feel like I could live here, I guess we found a more New York version down in Catskill and Hudson. It’s over too soon with Doug drumming.
Pack and ship, some more interviews; rehearse with Steve Goulding. Steve played with me some back in my New York and Nashville days, but he and Eric haven’t played together since: the recording of Whole Wide World in 1977. That is amazing music history. I quickly decide these two should have their own segment of my show, where they sit on a couch and talk about Brinsley and Nick and Lene and all the stuff we all want to hear about those heady prehistoric days. They are delightful and entertaining in the van.
Asbury Park is its own thing and always will be, thanks to Scott Stamper who’s been running the Saint forever. It’s a proper rock club, but with chairs this time. I love playing here. The Boss is still on Broadway so there’s not that tension wondering if he’ll show up to give his blessing – phew (but consider it implied). We stand around and talk after the show while the pretty door girl vacuums the stage and mops the entire club. Our lodging after is an Ocean Grove guesthouse with giant teddy bears in the parlor. It’s one block from the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s so cold and windy I don’t get anywhere near the beach the next morning.
My winter coat has become me. When I see it hanging on a dressing room coatrack, I feel like I’m looking at myself. When and if it ever becomes warm enough to go outside without a coat, will I still exist?
Jammin Java outside of DC. From the dressing room I hear lots of laughing and talking – “Is there a busy restaurant right next door to here?” I ask Steve. When Grahame and Ann from the Crowd Scene play their opening set, I hear clapping and cheering. The place is full. I always feel so moved playing in this place, I don’t know how everybody finds their way here.
We stop in Guitar Center in Fairfax, on the way to Richmond. Beltway Warriors looking for Excalibur – one guy seems to have every amp and pedal in the store arranged around him like Stonehenge. White shirt, chinos, his coat and tie cast off – he shreds towards nirvana, or maybe his wife just doesn’t let him do this at home. He does it for love, not glory. Okay, maybe a little Guitar Center glory.
It’s a last minute gig in Richmond but it sounds great in the Sound of Music studio and some people do show up. On the way here I started getting messages that Fresh Air was running a review of my album. Even my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother emails me congratulations. I remember what a great drummer Steve is, the Richmond folks are in awe of Eric and Steve – true legends in their midst. And there they are doing my bidding ha ha ha! My cousin Ceci takes us to the wine bar where one of her sons works – the food and beer scene in Richmond is exploding. It was an early show so there’s actually time to eat and drink something besides a granola bar off the floor of the van. We stay up way too late drinking wine and talking with Doyle, Ceci’s husband, joining us.
A day of more shipping, coffee drinking and barbq eating, and then we’re off to drive to Mountain Stage. It’s recorded in front of a live audience in Charleston, West Virginia which is about four hours from pretty much anywhere. It’s an honor to be invited to play this long-running show they broadcast on a couple hundred stations. Host Larry Groce, musicians and crew have all been here since the early eighties. It’s intimidating – I’ve stood next to Ricky Skaggs on this stage, and Alison Kraus. It’s a little hard getting the band sound happening on the carpeted stage with a baffle in front of the drums, and scary to play The Old Guys for a mountain crowd raised on bluegrass. They like my words and humor but I want to be one of the pickers too.
The other acts on the bill this night are a hip Welsh trad outfit, a New Orleans jazz quintet, the beautiful and talented singer Shannon McNally and Niger prog folk Afro pop Tuareg group Tal National who I’ve seen kill at the tiny Half Moon in Hudson. An odd assortment, it really does feel like A Mighty Wind with a voice coming through the old-fashioned loudspeakers backstage: “Ranky Tanky , ten minutes to the stage, Ranky Tanky – ten minutes to the stage.”
Showbiz existing in its own small universe. I’m proud they consider me part of the family. The session airs around April 20.
Drive nine hours to drop Steve off in Brooklyn and then another two and a half upstate. I was packing for England yesterday, trying to stay calm and not look at the frightening state of our house, my car, my clothes, hair and skin. The backyard with fallen trees – I’ll deal with it all in April, I keep telling myself.
Something about a snowstorm approaching. I finally have a chance to talk to my daughter on the phone after a week of occasional texts. Stop off at the bookstore to put in an art supply order. Pack and ship, pack and ship. Accept a delivery of the second printing of my booklets. Eric’s CDs arrived, his record release just two weeks away. Mail some posters. Cook dinner.
A text from the airline says our flight today’s been cancelled. We fly tomorrow AM, after the snow. I feel relief. Time for more packing and shipping. I’ll push the UK shows (will we really be playing in England in a few days? With our friend Ian Button on drums?) from home for a day. I might even pick up the guitar. Remember Guitar Center guy. Love, not glory.
- Sat Mar 24 Resonance FM London Hello Goodbye show
- Sun Mar 25 Hull UK O’Rileys tickets
- Mon Mar 26 Marc Riley show BBC 6 Music
- Tue Mar 27 Brighton UK Prince Albert tickets
- Wed Mar 28 Leicester UK The Musician tickets
- Thu Mar 29 Bristol UK Thunderbolt tickets
- Fri Mar 30 London UK Betsey Trotwood tickets
- Thu Apr 26 Hoboken NJ Little City Books tickets
- Thu May 3 Cleveland OH Beachland Tavern (with Johnny Dowd) tickets
- Fri May 4 Rochester NY Bop Shop tickets
- Sat May 5 Columbus OH Hogan House Concerts tickets
- Sun May 6 Cincinnati OH tbd
- Wed May 9 Knoxville TN Blue Plate Special (noon) + Sweet Pea’s BBQ (6 PM)
- Sat May 12 Nashville TN Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge
- Tue May 15 Nashville TN Bluebird Cafe (in the round with RB Morris + Jon Byrd)
- Sat Jun 16 Ojai CA house concert (email for details)
- Sun Jun 17 Los Angeles CA Wild Honey Backyard Show
- Thu Jun 21 San Francisco CA Hemlock Tavern
- Fri Jun 22 Chico CA house concert
- Sun Jun 24 Santa Cruz CA Michael’s on Main (2 pm afternoon show!)