Friday May 16 – Piedmont, CA, Piedmont Yoga Studio.
I’ve been playing a lot of piano for the last month or two, trying to get my fingers in shape to play a two hour improvisation on the piano here. I checked out the piano last week and noticed that it was quite a bit older than I had expected, and not in very good shape. Today, though, I realize that it’s more beat up than I had imagined. Several of the keys don’t work, and the tone is quite mushy. This thing is at least 100 years old.
I ask the organizer, an old friend of my wife’s, whether she knows a piano repair technician nearby. She finds someone who can come in the next hour. After he works on the broken keys, the piano is a bit more playable, but still very disappointing. I feel bad for the Yoga Studio, because I realize that someone sold them this piano for way too much money, and it’s much too old for serious use.
I had hoped that I might be able to arrange a tour someday with more piano solo concerts, but I am beginning to realize that good pianos are getting harder to find. I may have to re-think the piano thing a bit.
The concert goes OK, with a somewhat low turnout due to poor advertising. I feel a bit disappointed, but happy enough with my playing that I think afterwards that the solo piano concept might work, if I can get people interested.
Wednesday June 4 – Palm Springs, CA
Started the tour today, drove all day. Stopped in a Motel 6 near Palm Springs, on Interstate 10. What a weird place. The hotel is situated at the Eastern edge of a huge wind power farm. I can immediately see why they put windmills here, but the location of the Hotel remains a mystery. Nothing around but a Denny’s and a gas station. I ponder driving ten miles south to Palm Springs, but decide I’ll just stay here and hit the road first thing in the morning.
Constant gale force winds slam against the building all night long, creating low thrumming sounds like the onset of a small earthquake. Pressure changes from the passing wind create suction on the hotel room door, causing it to bang repeatedly outwards against the doorframe. I find some paper and fold it into thick wedges, cramming them into the crack between the door and the frame, trying to stop the insistent thumping.
In the morning, the wind has stopped. It’s sunny and calm. I wonder if weather will become the dominating theme of this tour. When I’m driving alone for long miles, I do tend to become especially tuned into the weather. In a car, I feel exposed to the elements, more vulnerable. I also feel alive to the changes, excited by the passing storms. Northern California weather changes so slowly, with few drastic storms to mark the shifting seasons. I love the thunderstorms I’ve seen in the great plains, serious weather that makes a person feel small.
Friday June 6 – Scottsdale AZ, Kerr Cultural Center
I didn’t really know what to expect from this concert. The organizer, Slim Golba, has a reggae band that plays in just intonation, and he wanted to bill the event as a night of pure tuning. My own experience has been that people don’t really care what tuning I use, as long as they like the music. I use just intonation to please myself mostly.
To my surprise, the venue turns out to be quite nice, despite requiring some last minute changes to the PA system. Slim’s band has a loyal core audience, augmented by a bunch of my listeners, some of whom drove all the way from Tucson. A great night overall, and I’m especially happy to see Rick Davies, only regretting that we don’t get more time to hang out together.
Saturday June 7 – Albuquerque, NM
I’m not a desert kind of guy, so I’m happy to pass through the wooded mountains around Flagstaff on my way to Albuquerque. Looking for signs of recent thunderstorms, I ponder stopping to hunt for mushrooms under the pine trees. Alas, the ground looks dry, so I keep my momentum and arrive early in Albuquerque. I’m staying with Jim Coker, who later shows me some very cool MIDI software that he has written for Macintosh OSX, called Numerology, emulating the looping performance of analog sequencers.
Michael Stearns and Ron Sunsinger drive down from Santa Fe to visit, and they drop by Jim’s house to join us for dinner. I haven’t seen Michael for several years, and this is the fist time I’ve met Ron. Ron actually performed a marriage ceremony for my friend Rick Davies and his wife over a decade ago, and Rick made me promise to pass on his greeting.
We spend most of the evening sharing war stories about the music biz, ruminating about the fluid landscape of record labels and film deals. Michael has some colorful stories to tell, regarding sound design work he had been doing in Texas for a Civil War documentary, with a trained marksman shooting at pig carcasses loaded with microphones to emulate the sounds of bullets hitting flesh. Always good dinner talk.
Sunday June 8 – Albuquerque, NM
Setting up for a radio Sleep Concert on KUNM as part of the Nonsequiter radio arts festival. Had dinner with Steve Peters, who arranged the event. While setting up, I’m hanging out with some very talented visual artists who work under the group name Keep Adding (Noah MacDonald is the name of one of them.) They’re friends of my host, Jim Coker, and they do some brilliant large scale graffiti-inspired work with Photoshop, printed onto canvas.
Performing at low density until 6 AM, with the usual sleep concert diet of coffee and Cliff bars to stay awake. The pleasant company of music loving graphic artists makes the time pass more quickly. Radio sleep concerts tend to be a bit easier for me than live ones, because I don’t have to be quiet during the long lulls between musical shifts.
Tuesday June 10 – Driving through Oklahoma
Back on the road after a day of extra sleep in Albuquerque. Somewhere east of Oklahoma City I’m watching a giant storm cell bubbling to the south. My position eastbound on I-40 is perfect, at the edge of the storm avoiding danger, far enough away that I can observe the shape of the towering cumulonimbus with its top sheared off into ice crystals high up in the stratosphere; yet close enough to study the battleship green shelf of clouds overhead to my right, a claustrophobic ceiling textured underneath with curling roiling bruise-colored tubules, not unlike giant intestines. My sense of distance gets boggled by the size of this storm, on the horizon of a flat land, possibly centered 100 miles away, yet with tendrils that drop an occasional pocket of heavy rain and lightning on the highway in front and behind me. I’m mesmerized by the power and danger that this living entity represents, enchanted by its awesome beauty.
Watching the Weather Channel in a Motel 6 somewhere in nowheresville eastern Oklahoma that night, I see radar maps of the storm that I watched in person, a few tornadoes which thankfully did no damage. It seems commonplace here in early summer.
Wednesday June 11 – Nashville, TN
A quick visit with my old friend and mastering mentor Bob Olhsson and his wife Ellen. We watch the new DVD “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” on which he consulted. Bob was a recording engineer at Motown during those heady days of the late sixties. We share a bottle of old Boujolais and discuss the music biz as usual, Bob sharing his unique perspective as an old-garde insider. I sleep on their couch.
June 12-15 – Atlanta, GA
I arrive in Atlanta after a beautiful day’s drive through wooded mountains (the Smokey Mountain range, perhaps.) Staying this week with Renée Nelson and her fiancé Michael Overstreet. Renée organized the Atlanta concert, and her band Envie will open. Renée plays harp sometimes with Jarboe (ex Swans.) We got to know each other through a production project I did with Percy Howard’s Meridiem a couple years ago, the Jarboe song “Carlotta” with Jarboe singing and Renée on harp.
I’m looking forward to seeing Henry Frayne also, who shares the bill with us. His solo project Lanterna sounds like spacey surf country. Henry and I met back in 1996 when he interviewed me on his radio show in Champaigne-Urbana IL, where he still lives. We saw each other again in 1998 in Chicago, when he played guitar with a band at the Projekt Festival that year. Henry is tall, lanky, and shy. He has an honest easygoing earnestness about him, and I love his music.
Food becomes the underlying theme here in Atlanta. It turns out that Renée and Michael are foodies like me, and they’re happy to show me the best in Southern cooking. We have some great dinners, and I begin to discard any notion of losing weight on this tour: lots of really good fried food, including a memorable appetizer of breaded alligator.
The concert on Saturday goes well, although the Eyedrum Gallery feels a bit rustic, to say the least. The turnout is pretty good, mostly thanks to the local audience for Envie. Their set sounded as if they were struggling with the room acoustics and poor monitoring on stage. Their sort of chamber pop shows serious musical talent, with a fragility that can prove difficult to pull off live.
Henry Frayne’s set sounded lush and silky. He played in deep shadow, hunched over his guitar as if he were alone in a dark closet. I confess that I have a hard time sitting through opening acts when I’m headlining, even when I like the music. I tend to get quite restless waiting to start. I don’t really remember my own set, whether it went well or not. I do remember that we were quite exhausted by the time we tore down and got home. Maybe we got to sleep by 3 or 4 AM.
Monday June 16 – Atlanta to Asheville, NC
On my way out of town, I join Renée and her father for lunch at one of his favorite barbecue spots, a large low brick building with an expansive back room filled with round tables and dinette chairs. We all order platters of chopped pork with coleslaw and muffins on the side. The slow-cooked meat comes unadorned, with choices of mild or spicy BBQ sauce in squirt bottles on every table. I learn this is the standard practice for Atlanta style barbecue.
The drive to Asheville passes through some very exciting weather, driving under pockets of heavy thunderstorms. Not many cars on the roads, the smart ones staying home perhaps. I’m taking mostly country highways, the recommended shortcuts since the interstates don’t connect directly. The countryside with low mountains and rolling forest looks beautiful, but sometimes the rain is so heavy I mostly stare straight ahead, staying alert for flooding and nearby lightning.
By the time I get to Asheville, it’s sunny again and humid. I’m staying in a shared house with several musicians, mostly drummers. The fireflies flash in the trees at night.
Tuesday June 17 – Asheville, NC, Vincent’s Ear
I meet John Vorus, who has been immensely helpful trying to make this concert at Vincent’s Ear a success. He printed some great looking posters, and borrowed a PA system from a friend to substitute for the club’s fried speakers. He even found the place for me to sleep during my visit. Folks like John and his friends make it possible for me to go on tour.
I’m not too fond of playing in clubs or bar-like environments. People usually talk too much, and the cigarette smoke can really get on my nerves. Vincent’s Ear was no exception, although in general the vibe from the audience was great. The first of the two opening acts was one of the drummers who rehearsed at the house where I was staying, and his short set of experimental drum squeaks and feedback showed sensitivity and creativity.
The guy who came on after him played deafeningly loud low drones on a laptop, which sent me running out of the room into the lightly rainy night. I chatted outside with a few fans who had driven from Tennessee for the show.
During my set I had to stare down a guy at the back of the club who was talking on his cellphone so loudly that I could hear every word up on stage, through my headphones. He stopped talking. However, I couldn’t stop the smoking, which seems to be a state-sponsored pastime in North Carolina. (Driving in the car a month later, I could still smell the old smoke that had soaked into the foam of my road cases.)
Wednesday June 18 – Pittsburgh PA
Pittsburgh has to be one of the most difficult towns in which to drive among any that I’ve seen in this country. I get lost in a maze of detours back and forth across the river as I try to find Jeff Kowal’s house, where I’m staying.
I got to know Jeff first as a client, when I mastered his first album. He works under the name Terra Ambient, and has good ear for thick rumbly textures. He’s trying his hand as a concert promoter for the first time, in partnership with Jim Brenholtz. Jeff Pearce and I agreed to squeeze in a Pittsburgh show on our way out to Harrisburg for the big festival this Sunday.
Friday June 20 – Pittsburgh PA, Rex Theater
They say the Rex Theater is haunted. Noises up in the attic sound more like the ceiling could collapse. This building does not inspire confidence. A torrential rainstorm starts around 4 PM, and continues for several hours. Luckily we have already unloaded the gear, and sound check is almost done.
The stage manager casually informs me that the theater roof leaks occasionally in heavy rains, but that it usually just drips a bit in the back corner of the stage. Just to be safe he recommends that I move my rig forward a bit. I shuffle things a few feet, grudgingly because I hate to move my rig after it’s set up.
An hour later, the manager finds me in the front lobby to let me know that the roof is indeed leaking, but the water looks like it’s missing my gear. I might want to check, just in case. I run up to the stage to discover that a stream of drips is landing directly on my mixer, which is just beginning to short out with fizzing sounds in the headphones, and LEDs blinking randomly on and off. I yank the power as fast as I can and mumble some swear words, while thinking how to solve this disaster.
We unplug some cables and drag the synths over to the center of the stage, out of the rain. I send Jeff down the street to buy a cheap hairdryer. I pull the Mackie mixer out of the rack, unplugging 50 patch cords behind it, unscrew the chassis and begin to dry all the circuit boards with a towel. Jeff returns with hairdryer and I blow-dry all the nooks and crannies behind the front panel.
Amazingly, after reassembling the mixer, it works again. After another 20 minutes patching cables inside the rack case, I’m up and running. Opening duo Life in Balance have been waiting patiently for me to get rebuilt, unable to set up and do soundcheck until my tools and junk clear the stage. (They had their own mishap today, with a broken crystal bowl-gong. Perhaps this place is haunted after all?)
It turns out that this rainstorm has triggered some flash flooding in outlying areas of Pittsburgh, and quite a few people may have decided to stay home tonight. The turnout looks to be disappointing.
Jeff Pearce puts on a good show, chatting with the audience between each of his dense loop-based guitar pieces. He only plays half as long as expected, though. Backstage, I ask him why he only played 25 minutes. He explains that the squeaking noises above the stage were getting so loud that he feared the roof would cave in. Great. Now it’s my turn. Luckily, the roof holds together for the next few hours and we limp beck to Jeff’s house after an exhausting and somewhat stressful night.
Sunday June 22 – Harrisburg PA, Whittaker Science Center
A blissfully uneventful Saturday: drove to Harrisburg and checked into the hotel. Ate dinner at the hotel, practiced piano a bit in the hotel bar, went back upstairs and read a book.
The concert today is the original catalyst for going on tour this summer, a Solstice event with Jeff Pearce, Steve Roach, John Serrie and me at Harrisburg’s shiny new Science Center. I love these well-oiled gigs, with money to pay proper fees and do some real promotion. The theater looks great and sounds great, and setup goes smoothly.
Attendance looks excellent tonight. I’m guessing about 500 people, nearly filling the hall.
Jeff Pearce cracks everyone up when he finishes his set by snipping four of his guitar strings with wire cutters, before playing a closing piece on two strings with ebow and loops. He tells me later backstage that he cut one string too many in his enthusiasm, and struggled to keep the ebow placed properly over the string. People enjoy his homespun theatrics, though.
I start my set with a piano improvisation, then slide over to the electronics in what I had hoped would be a seamless transition. I put the headphones on, getting ready to start playing “Animus”, and hear a sizzling crunchy sound coming from some piece of gear in the rack. Echoes of Pittsburgh! So much for seamless transitions. I apologize to the audience, quickly mute and unmute all the channels, and luckily discover the hum in one of the Lexicon reverbs. It’s the short reverb that I use to thicken some percussion sounds, and I quickly determine I won’t need it tonight because the theater has good acoustics and can provide its own reverb. Luckily, that appears to be the only glitch during my set.
(Upon reflecting about the fizzing reverb, I remember that it also got rained on in Pittsburgh, sitting face up at the top of the rack next to the mixer. Since it was still behaving itself in Pittsburgh, the water must not have soaked into the unit yet. The moisture waited for me like a little time bomb, frying the unit in little increments during subsequent shows.)
After my set, I hang around in the control room to listen to Steve Roach’s set, always seamless and deep. I spend most of the time during John Serrie’s performance out in the front lobby signing CDs and chatting with audience members. We had planned to do a group bow for the audience after John ended his set, but John plays almost an hour longer than expected. We bail on the group ending and hang around backstage telling stories with John Diliberto.
After a quick partial tear-down we all retreat to the neighboring hotel restaurant for late night dinner and jovial conversation. I wish every concert could end this well.
Monday June 23 – en route to Westchester, NY
I drive out to my sister’s house, where I’ll take a couple weeks off and visit family. Originally I had planned to perform in Paris during this interval, but the war and airline caution would have made it too difficult to travel with electronic gear. I’m looking forward to some downtime, anyway.
Wednesday June 25 – Troy, NY
The concert in Troy pulled together quickly when I decided to stay in New York instead of travel to France. After an easy two hour drive from Westchester, I meet with organizer Jason Murphy and we head to the theater, a classy black box that seats about 100 people, often a perfect sort of venue for me. It even features a beautiful Baldwin grand piano. I learn that Troy is sleepy in the summertime, a college town that rolls up its sidewalks when the students go home. The concert goes fairly well but the turnout is low. On the plus side, the Lexicon behaves itself tonight.
June 26 to July 14 – South Salem, NY
Spending time with my sister’s family. I help my brother-in-law build a decorative stone creek bed with little waterfalls, to make a drainage channel in the yard more attractive. We head down to the city a couple times for dinner and sightseeing. I get a lot of reading done.
John Diliberto invites me down to do an interview for Echoes, so I spend two days midweek driving south to Pennsylvania, spending the night with the Diliberto family. Alas, Echoes engineer and old friend Jeff Towne is away this week on vacation. John and I head into Philadelphia that evening to see a movie, the documentary about Andy Goldsworthy called “Rivers and Tides.” It’s exactly the sort of quiet, thoughtful movie that I love, although John probably finds it was a bit too slow.
Goldsworthy’s work has a rare clarity of mind, hovering somewhere between simple playfulness and sheer wonder. Watching him painstakingly adhere icicles to a rock in the shape of a serpent, which then catches the waning light of the sunset in a brilliant flash of light, transmits a strong nonverbal message of the “meaning” in the act of making art.
I realize from the film that Goldsworthy has built a large stone wall at an outdoor sculpture garden in upstate New York called Storm King. I mention this to my sister upon returning to New York, and we do a bit of research. It turns out that Storm King is only 40 minutes away, across the Hudson. We make a day of it.
I had never expected Storm King to have such a breathtaking collection of large scale abstract sculpture! This place is amazing. Huge Calder mobiles are spinning in the wind. A ten acre minimalist installation by Richard Serra gives the impression of an ancient structure buried under the hill, with only four black slabs of steel protruding from a slope. We sit for twenty minutes, mesmerized by a kinetic piece by George Cutts called “Sea Change,” with two sensuously curved steel poles slowly turning around each other like two snakes in a mating dance. Goldsworthy’s wall curves serpentine between trees at the edge of the 500 acre park, quietly inviting viewers to explore its sinuous length.
We return home from Storm King visually nourished, awakened with wonder and astonishment, having experienced art at its best.
Wednesday July 16 – Columbus OH, Dragonfly Neo-V
Back on the road, happy to be playing music again. I like Columbus, an attractive midwestern college town. Todd Faulkner has done a good job organizing this small gig. I’m staying with a photographer friend of Todd’s named Eric Shinn, who has kindly opened up his house to a total stranger.
The venue turns out to be a classy vegan restaurant with a funky cool art gallery attached next-door. When I set up the gear, I pay close attention to the behavior of the troublesome rain-damaged Lexicon. This time it doesn’t power up properly at all. It doesn’t fizz, nor does it make reverb. DOA. So, I play another show without short verb, but again luckily the room acoustics hide the shortcomings. The audience is great tonight, a good turnout and very enthusiastic. Good vegan dinner, too!
Friday July 18 – Louisville, KY, U of L Music School Recital Hall
On the way out of Columbus, I stop at a music store and buy myself a new reverb, a nice and inexpensive TC Electronics M-One XL. Setting up early for this show, I remove the old ‘verbs out of the rack and do some fast patching and programming. This thing sounds great!
I’m staying with Jason Clark, his girlfriend and their housemate, sleeping on the living room floor of their small apartment. Jason organized one of the best concerts on last year’s tour, a sell-out at the university planetarium. We couldn’t get the planetarium this time, but this recital hall looks great. A nice Steinway piano, wood flooring and steeply inclined lecture-hall seating. Unfortunately, we can’t figure out how to turn down the safety lights in the room, so we perform the concert with fairly high ambient light.
Jason opens the show with his project SKL, playing mostly from a laptop with a friend on didgeridoo. The music slides interestingly between beat-oriented glitchy electronica and trancy drones.
The show isn’t a sellout this time, but the audience is wonderful. Several people came with gifts for me, including a portrait of me drawn with energy lines and mushrooms radiating from my head, by a listener named Joshua Bronaugh. Folks hang around after the show and help load out. Good vibes. We’re all happy, and stay up late talking at Jason’s house
Sunday July 20 – Detroit, MI
I was planning to perform in Chicago on this date, but as that concert began to fall through I got a call from some guys in Detroit who wanted to organize a show. I was a bit confused at first, because they both were named Jason, and one of them even named Jason Clark. In Louisville we joked that the Detroit Jason Clark was the Evil Jason, an antimatter twin separated at birth. If the two ever met, they would certainly explode.
The other Detroit Jason – Jason Huvaere – offered me his bedroom while he slept downstairs in the office. The office/basement houses a website called paxahau.com, with live streaming audio and the promotional front end for a series of raves that these guys have been organizing successfully for several years. They tapped into their Detroit techno audience to introduce them to some old-school ambient, my style.
On short notice they secured the planetarium in the science center at the university. The show sold out three days before on pre-sales alone, with pure grassroots promotion. These guys are good! They even mailed a letter to everyone who bought tickets, explaining that this wasn’t a rave, and people should behave themselves in the planetarium. They hope to do other shows here in the future. I’m hoping I get a chance to play here again, too, because this concert was a pleasure. Good sound, good lights, no big technical problems. My kind of show!
It turns out Jason Huvaere also appreciates good wine, so after the concert we head back to the house and have a small tasting with the rest of the Paxahau crew. Jason opens some good stuff! He even sends me packing with two excellent bottles to try later, one a 1996 Montepulciano, with big chewy tannins and lots of acidity, the other a DeLille D2 from Washington State, with complex grassy smells and dark leathery blueberry fruit. Thanks, Jason!
Monday July 21 – Tornadoes in Southern Michigan
Driving southwest to Peoria I hit the most intense weather I have seen yet on this trip. Blue-black clouds up ahead, deep opaque blurs underneath, telling me I’ll hit heavy rain. I tune into the radio news, and listen to tornado warnings for the two counties north of me, with a tornado moving southeast. It’ll probably miss me, since I’m driving west, but the weather looks big.
The 18 wheel semi in front of me slows down as we approach a wall of rain. The driver turns on his hazard lights, and for 20 minutes those blinking red lights provide my only clue about the road. We’re driving about 15 miles per hour through an airborne lake. Water hits the car so hard it’s deafening, and the wipers prove useless. I feel like I’m driving a submarine. Common sense would have suggested I pull over and wait for the storm to pass, but I figure I’m OK as long as the truck in front of me stays on the road.
Indeed we pass under the storm unscathed. By late afternoon I drive through the tiny river town of Chillicothe, a few miles north of Peoria. I plan to stay for two nights with family in Peoria, my mother’s home town. Her cousin Hank lives on the road between the towns. He and his wife Sally welcome me with a light dinner and a spare bedroom, and Hank surprises me with an interest in my music and a desire to see me perform tomorrow.
Hank and Sally have surprised me in other ways. My family is generally quite conservative, and on the surface Hank and Sally are no exception. A respectable couple in their late fifties, Hank is a dermatologist and Sally has been director for several charity groups. Both are active, attractive, intellectually curious and environmentally aware.
I’m especially impressed by their dedication to the local Nature Conservancy. Their house sits at the edge of a forested hillside, with several open acres separating it from the road out front. They have carefully re-seeded this front acreage with native grasses and wildflowers, and they granted this portion of their property to the Conservancy.
Last year, when I visited Hank and Sally while passing through Peoria, Sally drove me out to the Dickson Mounds Museum, which she has helped support. (http://www.museum.state.il.us/ismsites/dickson/homepage.htm) This place is an exquisite example of cooperation between archaeologists, environmentalists, educators and native people. An older museum had been built over a sacred burial site from the mound building Hopewell culture and more recent Mississippian people, on the bluffs near the Illinois River. Controversy over displaying Indian remains led to the construction of a new museum, built in a ring that covers, hides and protects the burial site. Multimedia displays tell stories from the Indian’s perspective, in their own voices, and ethnographic exhibits supplement the archaeology. I recommend this museum highly!
Tuesday July 22 – Chillicothe IL
Eric Williamson has a studio in a storefront of this friendly and clean little community, between cornfields and the Illinois River. When I was planning this tour, he sent me an email almost jokingly asking whether I would play in Peoria. I wrote back saying, sure, as long as you can get people to show up! So here I am.
Eric’s mom owns a coffee shop in an old bank building across the street. I wait there nursing a capucino until Eric shows up. Eric’s sister has the key to his studio, so we walk across and she opens it for me. They’ve adopted a stray kitten that’s running loose in the studio, and it keeps me entertained for a while. Eric shows up. We begin moving furniture and hauling gear.
We convert Eric’s storefront space into a makeshift concert hall, with about 30 folding chairs and a pair of 3-way Mackie PA speakers. (These speakers popped up at a few concerts during this tour, and I must say they sound pretty darned good.)
People show up and the room feels friendly, with an audience of about 25. I’m surprised to hear that several members of the audience drove down from Chicago, filling in for the show that got cancelled there. Eric performs first with a somewhat Teutonic sounding set. He’s using the software that Jim Coker showed me in Albuquerque. (Eric goes by the name Suit and Tie Guy because he always dresses in a suit and tie, quite a chore during the hot humid midwest summers.) I end up playing a rather melodic set. The small town atmosphere puts me in a mellow mood.
Wednesday July 22 – driving through the Midwest.
I get an early start and prepare for a long boring drive through cornfields. In the past I have dreaded this stretch of I-80: long, flat, straight, monochrome. Today, however, I see it through different eyes. I think of the phrase “big sky” and notice how certain views extend so far I think I can sense the curvature of the earth. The sky takes on a dome shape, vaulted and grandiose like Ptolemaic maps of the celestial spheres. Small scalloped clouds progress like ocean waves, viewed upside down as I hang inverted from this earthbound gondola.
Even Nebraska, that dreaded dry expanse of farmland, takes on new luster today as I recognize the Platt River Valley for the oasis it really is. I notice the low bluffs still populated by old oak and cottonwood trees. This must have seemed paradise for the Arapahoe who for centuries shared this land with buffalo and hawks.
I stop before dark in Cozad, NE, and check into Motel 6. I have a childhood memory of driving cross-country with my parents in the mid-seventies. We stopped for dinner at Dudes’ Steakhouse in Lincoln, Nebraska. The faded neon sign outside showed a picture of a steer. It was dim inside with dark wood panelling and burgundy colored naugahyde booths. My mother ordered roast beef and it came an inch thick and rare, covering the large oval plate, with a dollop of horseradish and separate plates holding potato and julienned carrots. I remember tasting this tender cross-section of cow and thinking it was the best meat I’d ever tried, sweet and buttery soft.
About five years ago, my wife Dixie joined me on a short tour across the midwest, and I told her about my Nebraska Beef Experience. We actually found Dude’s Steakhouse in Lincoln, and I am happy to say it hadn’t changed.
I rarely ate beef for years. For almost a decade I was semi-vegetarian, after which beef tasted like rust to me. Now I’ll try anything if it’s good. So today I ask the motel clerk to suggest some nearby restaurants (other than the ubiquitous Denny’s or Burger King, which seem to have signed joint development deals with Motel 6.) I walk down the highway frontage road, and turn north into the outskirts of town, my legs still vibrating from the ten hour drive.
I select PJ’s Restaurant for my Nebraska Beef Experience this year (103 East Monroe in Cozad NE). The interior looks suitably honest, with requisite brown naugahyde and red checkered table cloths. I order the smallest and most expensive beef on the menu, a $16 8 oz. fillet mignon. First comes a large clear plastic bowl of iceberg lettuce, garnished with shredded carrots, red cabbage and blue cheese dressing – the definition of a midwestern salad.
The fillet comes rare inside with deep wood char on the outside, cooked almost “blue” in kitchen jargon, merely a sprinkle of salt and pepper, a small mound of horseradish and a bottle of ketchup on the table, some hash browns to soak up the ketchup (not on the steak!) It’s tender enough to ignore the knife, and it melts like soft caramel in my mouth. Almost spherically thick (I could be referring to the fillet or my stomach at this point), I take half back to the hotel for a midnight snack. Indeed, Nebraska’s the place to eat beef, an infrequent ritual I reserve as a reward for driving through corn fields one more time.
Thursday July 24 – Denver CO
My wife Dixie will fly into the Denver airport this afternoon, and I’m arriving early enough that I’ll be able to pick her up. We haven’t seen each other for two months, but we talk almost daily by cellphone.
The Denver airport sits way outside of town, in a barren hilly wasteland slowly filling with sprawling townhome suburbs. I’ve arrived hours early, and security laws prevent me from parking my car and hanging out in the airport. I get some gas then lean up against the station’s chairless countertop sipping a diet cola, watching people come and go in the quick-stop market. It’s very hot outside and I’m enjoying the air conditioning.
Bored, I drive into one of the nearby “towns” which consist of several square miles of gated condominium clusters and strip-malls full of chain restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and Star Rockets. Some urban planner decided that this would be a “great place to raise your kids up” (Centreville, Zappa’s 200 Motels) and the generic kid-friendly restaurant chains soon followed.
Often these suburbs contain hidden ethnic treasures, so I search around the edge corners of strip-mall parking lots. Here’s where I find the Mexican carnecérias, Indian spice markets, and barbecue. I discover Uncle Buck’s BBQ (http://www.unclebucksbbq.com/) a family run hole-in-the-mall with owner chef Ed Denmon hanging out at the front table, greeting customers and chatting with regulars. I’m here after lunch hour, so I’m the only person. I’m not very hungry, mostly looking to waste some time. My appetite grows smelling scents from the smoker, so I order some chicken legs. The sweet/sour/spicy Kansas City style chipotle sauce perfectly compliments the delicately smoked meat. This place is good.
I head back to the airport, ten minutes away, pick Dixie up and sweep her over to Uncle Buck’s where she orders a pulled pork sandwich to go, lasting her all the way across town through messy highway construction, as we drive toward Jim Lanpheer’s house.
Friday July 25 – Denver CO, Temple Events Center
Joe Dobzynski contacted me before the tour, wondering if I would like to add a gig to the house concert I had planned with Jim Lanpheer. Jim and I had been trying to find a way to organize a public concert, and Joe was starting a label and wanted to have some of his artists perform in Denver. They would open for me in a venue, to be determined. This sounded like a good match.
As the weeks past, I heard nothing from Joe, but I got email from a sculptor named Doris Laughton Smith, who wanted to use my music with a slide presentation at a Denver gallery where she would have an opening. After permission and pleasantries exchanged, it appeared that this gallery could be a good location for a public concert. I emailed Joe, and heard back from him the same day telling me he had already booked a 700 seat hall because he couldn’t find anything smaller. Yikes! I warn him that I don’t have that kind of draw in Denver, but I learn it’s too late.
Needless to say, I dread this show because I expect to perform for an empty theater. I would rather play to 30 people in a packed living room than to 50 people in a huge auditorium. My expectations prove correct. Attendance sucks. Nevertheless, the audience gives their best attempt at filling the room with energy, and I have a better time than I expected. The events center turns out to be a 100 year old synagogue with a beautiful ballroom basement and exquisite woodwork throughout, converted to a non-profit community center after the neighborhood saved it from threats of demolition. Frustrating gig in a fascinating venue. I feel a bit sorry for Joe, who needs to learn a bit about the humbling “business” of ambient/electronic music.
Saturday July 26 – Denver CO
Jim Lanpheer offered his house for a concert in Denver last year, and it proved to be a great experience. Since then he has invited several other artists to play there, and the good word has spread. This is my second time, and I want to do something special.
I warned people that Saturday’s house concert will be totally different from Friday’s public concert, hoping of course that people would go to both shows. I chose to make tonight’s concert completely improvised, unique on the tour. I wanted to try something special (and I figured this crowd would forgive me if I made a few mistakes along the way.)
Hoping for a magic moment, I set up a DAT tape, which Jim has offered to monitor. Folks arrive, and we settle in to a relaxed party vibe. One couple drove south from Saskatchewan Canada for the show. Sculptor Doris Laughton and her husband come and give me a signed and numbered “Splat”. Ceramicist Dwight Davidson gives me a handmade tile with a beautifully glazed relief of a tree frog. Mike Metlay (Recording Magazine editor) comes from Boulder with his feisty and funny 8 year old daughter.
As we settle in and I start playing, a thunderstorm starts brewing outside. Lightning and deep subsonic thrumming punctuate an intense droney concert, as if to inject it with electric charge. As I write this memoir, I’m listening to the recording, but I don’t hear the thunder on the tape. I do occasionally hear transient clicks of static, no doubt from the lightning. There’s something special about this recording, and I am hoping to release it. Something about the heavy weather and community spirit seems to summarize this moment.
Monday July 28 to Friday August 1 – en route to Seattle
Dixie and I leave Denver after a pleasant Sunday playing tourist with Jim and his girlfriend in Boulder. We drive north across Wyoming, to Jackson Lake Lodge in the Tetons, to enjoy a good dinner in the Mural Room with sunset over Grand Teton, and collapse exhausted from social interaction and long drives.
Tuesday in Yellowstone, I take close up pictures of slimy bacterial mats and sulphur springs, hoping for another happy accident like the cover of “Fissures”. (No luck this time, alas.) We continue north and spend the night in Missoula Montana.
Wednesday we drive across eastern Washington. I never realized this area was so desolate and boring. I would take Nebraska any day. I wonder if there’s any way to detour down to Yakima and check out the wine region, but distance and driving schedule forbids the daliance. We arrive at the home of my old friend Nathan Griffith and his wife Brenda in early evening.
Nathan used to be an art professor. Brenda is a multifaceted and very skilled painter, whose densely textured field paintings populate their house. Now Nathan edits images for the digital stock house Corbis. We share some common tastes in music and abstract art, and I’ve learned a lot from him about minimal sculpture. He introduced me 15 years ago to light artist James Turrell, and today he tells me that Turrell has a new permanent exhibit at the UW Henry Art Gallery. We plan a visit.
Thursday we play tourist at Pike Place and local shops. Friday we head down to the Henry and experience some incredible luminous art. I could spend all day here. Turrell’s sky room consists of an enclosed ring of bench seating with an elliptical hole cut in the ceiling. The ellipse imposes a frame upon the energized gray-blue dome of sky above, reminding the eye that everything around us becomes retinal once perceived. I ponder at the opposition between this approach and that of Marcel Duchamp, who fought the “retinal” in art, trying to move his creations into a purely conceptual realm. I find myself attracted to both ideas at once, amazed at all reminders of our place here alive and perceiving – whether through eye or through ideation.
Turrell’s interior light sculptures tickle the eye more intensely than the sky space. The piece called “Spread” appears from outside like a surface of glowing blue glass, flat but more intense than any reflective canvas. As you approach the surface, it becomes a depth, an opening into another room, filled with pure light. You walk in, and you become engulfed in energy, an experience that triggers the imagination towards “Close Encounters”: otherworldly, almost spiritual and awesome.
This work lives in a different universe than Andy Goldsworthy, yet like Goldsworthy it creates awe without substance, magic without a tangible artifact. Like music, it exists in the ether, an incongruous action that conveys meaning, a place energized by a creative moment, a stimulus within which to see oneself.
Saturday August 2 – Seattle WA, Secluded Alley Works
Ken Hofsass contacted me last year to ask if there would be any way to get me to perform in Seattle. I replied saying “sure, just find me a promoter.” He offered to try it himself. He secured the venue and made posters, sent announcements to newspapers and succeeded in filling the venue. Thanks Ken! This turned out to be a great show despite my trepidations about the funky neighborhood. My favorite memory of this gig was the Ethiopian food we ate in a little restaurant across the street.
Sunday August 3 to Tuesday August 6 – San Juan Island
A few days off to visit my parents up in Puget Sound. We arrive to listen to my father play guitar with his jazz band in Friday Harbor. Monday my parents celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary, so we take them out to Roche Harbor for dinner. Mostly we kick back and watch the boats go by.
Wednesday August 7 to Saturday August 9 – Portland OR
We’re staying at the home of Jay Swichtenberg, one of a circle of musicians whom I have known since the mid-eighties. These guys played in synth groups and swapped cassettes back when I still had one foot in the cassette underground scene, and I’ve long felt a kinship with them.
Jay has some spare time this week, and he graciously takes us into Portland for a day of exploration. On the first Thursday each month, the streets of the gallery district come alive with artists and craftsmen selling their work. The art galleries stay open late, and everyone’s eating outside at a café or walking in the late daylight of a Northwest midsummer evening. I could live here.
On Friday, Jay drives us east of town, up the Columbia River Valley, to see some of the waterfalls and views along the river. We hike a bit and enjoy some fresh air. In the evening we head over to Dave Fulton’s house for a pre-concert party. Paul Schreiber arrives from Texas to meet the crew. (Paul makes the MOTM modular that both Dave Fulton and I have been using. Some Synthesis Technology software developers also live in Portland, so Paul thought this would be a good excuse to discuss their work in person.) Good food and company, including old friends like Brian Magill, whom I haven’t seen in almost a decade.
Saturday, yet another show. Dave Fulton’s group Dweller at the Threshold opens for me, then I do my thing. The venue, Nocturnal, has a good sounding PA system with those same Mackie 3-way speakers hung from the roof, and a classy bar downstairs out of earshot (no bar chatter during the show… yay!) Decent turnout, no major glitches, good family vibe all around. Everyone ponders the idea of going out for a midnight dinner after we tear down and load out, but exhaustion sets in and I feel more inclined to wake up early and make it home tomorrow.
Sunday August 10 – Home
After a day’s drive from Portland, with brief lunch stop in Medford to say hello to my aunt. . . how wonderful to be home! Our cat runs along the back fence to greet us, making frantic meep meep sounds after she hears our whistle. The vegetables that we planted back in April look like a jungle, with three zucchinis grown to the size of human thighs since Dixie left two weeks before. I taste a tiny sample of my homemade zinfandel aging in barrels in the basement, and I’m astonished to discover that in the last three months it has matured from almost undrinkably tannic to something that, well, doesn’t suck. The next few days I spend doing email and catching up on bills, before heading down to LA with Dixie for one last concert.
Saturday August 16 – Pomona, CA, 51 Buckingham
Chuck Oken owns and manages Rhino Records in Claremont, and unflinchingly supports electronic, progressive and ambient music despite its low marketability. Chuck’s an old friend of Steve Roach, who introduced me to Chuck years ago. He also plays drums in the band Djam Karet. He’s using Rhino’s name to help promote concerts by musicians that he likes. This final concert on my tour takes place in a large gallery/performance space in neighboring Pomona. Chuck puts us up in a nice hotel for two days and buys us lunch on the day of the show.
The backdrop behind the stage of 51 Buckingham, a backlit geometric relief made of layered sheets of stamped steel, doubles as a sound diffusion panel. It adds a classy modern touch to the otherwise timeworn large hall. During sound check I discover that the PA system has fried tweeters, which triggers some last minute anxiety. They call in the owner of the club, who successfully repairs the speakers but treats me quite rudely. I feel like he thinks it’s my fault his speakers are toasted, not the punk band that played here last night. The helpful guys who work at the club tell me he’s rude to everyone.
While repair work proceeds, I’m doing an interview with a television crew out front, who want to start a cable series about technology and the arts. As Dixie sets up the merchandise table, the others ask her where I went. She tells them I have a knack for chattering too long during interviews. (!) Well, yes, I suppose… but this time I was waiting for them to adjust the lighting during sunset while the breeze kept knocking down the light diffuser.
Tonight’s concert earns my award for the most distance an audience member has travelled. Jussi Piekkala flew from Helsinki Finland, having scheduled a week’s holiday in California to coincide with my concert. I’m a bit flabbergasted, of course. Jussi is a soft spoken professional, eminently polite, unwilling to bother me while I set up before the show. He’s a pleasure to talk to, very intelligent and astute. We discuss some of the spiritual and symbolic elements behind the music, something which I generally try to underplay for fear of being misunderstood.
Jussi’s commitment to being here for the concert makes me realize, even more than usual, how important it is for me to give my best with each concert, to try to communicate something with substance. It’s easy to get burnt out, to lose focus near the end of a tour; but tonight I realize that the act of performing actually recharges me, continually returns me to the source, to the inexpressible reasons that music matters.
This small community of listeners, who seek out abstract and introspective music, share a common thread of openness and curiosity. This slow music will never become a majority artform. Our music sounds either boring or bizarre to most people. I’ve come to feel deepening gratitude to the audience who makes it possible for me to search for new sounds, new modes of expressing the ineffable. I relish the moments when I can talk with people before and after concerts, occasionally sharing surprising familiarities.
I recall each vivid late night, exhausted but still vibrating with nervous energy after a concert; among new friends we share ideas until dawn, before I wander off to sleep on a guest bed or living room floor.
We dream alone, yet a dreamer’s world can feel unfulfilled when left unshared. The creative act becomes a searchlight, a code to find fellow dreamers. As we locate each other, a web of community forms, a community spread across distance, connected by dreams and their artifacts. I feel very lucky to have found this web of friends.