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The Smell of Cow Manure Makes Me Homesick (Life on the Road)

The Smell of Cow Manure Makes Me Homesick (AKA Life on the Road)

"Wow, sounds like you had an AMAZING vacation." I've just run into a friend at the coffee shop and his offhanded comment (echoed by everyone from family members to total strangers) has me torn between bemusement and laughter. Having just come back from a 9 day ("Thunder run") tour of the Netherlands and Germany, I thought it would be a good time to write about what touring (here at home or abroad) is most often like, in my experience. Including (especially) the things that don't make Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

THE CLIFF NOTES VERSION:

If you want to simulate how it feels physically, just stay up for at least 24 hours, sit in a really uncomfortable chair for enough time that your back aches and various limbs fall asleep, then borrow a car you've never driven, switch your GPS to a foreign language, and use it to navigate to a place several hours away in a town where you don't know anyone, and try to do your work as usual, preferably with some element of public speaking in there. Eat and drink something you don't usually, then try to sleep in an unfamiliar place. Now get up 2-3 hours earlier than normal and lather, rinse, repeat for at least a week, probably two to three weeks if you can spare it. If 36 hours is all you've got, then just throw a small bucket of cash out the window of that borrowed car, and head home.

THE UP: It can be an inspiring, transformative experience.

Although you don't often have the time to see all the museums, restaurants, cultural attractions and other tourist-type things you'd see on an actual vacation, you do get to hang out with the people who actually live and work in the cities and towns you're playing in- the quickest, easiest way to get a real insider's perspective into what life in those areas is like. Want to know where the music stores, record shops, bookstores, coffee shops, farmers' markets, cool bars are? Easy.

Unexpected experiences can pop up out of nowhere and make your day. An impromptu bike ride to a mill that Van Gogh painted? A hike to a beautiful overlook in the Alps? Finding that cool little farm stand with the local cheeses and smoked salmon just off the Northern CA coast? Spontaneous happenings can easily become highlights of the trip.

It's also really special (domestically or internationally) to get to share your art with interested audiences who may not have known about you before. It can be incredibly rewarding to connect, make new friends, and experience your art through a completely fresh (sometimes unexpected) perspective. This is probably the biggest reason why we do it.

It's a truly mind-broadening experience. Seeing firsthand different lifestyles, different viewpoints, different ways of doing and looking at things, without a comfort zone to fall back on can do incredible things for your empathy, humanity, and imagination. When you're in one place for a while, it's easy to assume that there's only one or two ways to do or look at things. "Get out of Dodge" for a bit, and that gets totally upended. It's cross-ventilation for the mind. I always come back feeling more creative, more nimble, more flexible in my thinking and doing and being.  

THE DOWN: It's physically and mentally really, really hard.

You're exhausted the majority of the time. Most of us are familiar with what a drag jet lag is, but trying to be functional without any recovery time is its own form of hell. Most of the time, you'll arrive and have a show the same night. So you'll hit the ground running that night, then get up and do it again the next day, and the next... At some point jet lag will switch to garden-variety tiredness, but it takes an experienced connoisseur of exhaustion to detect the subtle change. You also spend a lot of time sitting on your bum, in cars, planes, trains etc. Your legs will fall asleep and your butt will become very tired, just like the rest of you.

You probably won't get to see those museums, hip restaurants, galleries, spas, natural, or cultural attractions. You just won't have the time. Most days will either be gig days or travel days. Days off are to be avoided if at all possible, because any day you're not playing, you're losing money. (Sometimes there are exceptions, and I always try to add a few days on to the end of a tour to get to see some of those things I wouldn't have the opportunity to see otherwise.)

Speaking of money, you probably won't make much. Sometimes you'll be in the black, sometimes you'll be in the red, sometimes you'll break even. The overhead required to make it happen in the first place can be overwhelming and take a long time to recoup. Just Google some airfares (either domestic or international) and then multiply by the number of band members you'd like to bring. Add in a car rental, throw in for gas, tolls, lodging on nights the venue doesn't provide a place to stay, meals, and other unexpected expenses, like gear repair, socks, or your 37th replacement iPhone charger.

The weirdest things will make you weep. (Mostly because of the exhaustion- it's not lost on us that sleep deprivation is an interrogation tactic.) For me, it's the smell of cow manure. Or new-mown hay. This puts me in a minority, I know, but whenever we're in farm country, look out. (City-dwellers have other triggers that I know far less about. They always seem to have something to do with the smell of rain on asphalt.) Other weird things will make you laugh. It's trippy.

THE CONCLUSION (IF THERE REALLY IS ONE):

In short (or long), this is what it's like, much of the time. We generally only post the really cool stuff on social media- the awe-inspiring views, the fabulous dinners, the cool venues. Because nobody really wants to see half the band asleep and drooling in the back of the van, or hauling gear up several flights of hotel stairs (no elevator!) at 2 am, or the tiny bed in a hostel in the middle of nowhere where you hit your head on the sloped ceiling in the middle of the night, or the hours you sat in traffic, or the piles of dirty laundry...

Touring is an alternate reality, an enhanced state brought on by completely uprooting yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's strange, inspiring, rewarding, exhausting, exciting, boring, and in the end can serve as a mental brush fire of sorts, forcing you to focus on things that might not be possible in the tedium of everyday. This can be a very useful thing, and I recommend that everyone try it, if possible. It's hard, and you might not come home with a lot of financial reward to show for it. (It's also not for everyone, and for those with small children, I can't even fathom how you do it!) But you get to share art with new friends in new places, and although the road is harder now than it's ever been, there are still a bunch of us crazy fools out there doing it. Maybe we'll be coming to your town soon. Can we do some laundry?

 

Lighten up- It's Spring, after all!

I missed the March blog entry (mea culpa!), but since for many of us, the never-ending end of winter is something we'd rather forget, I'm jumping into April here before that too passes by. For this installment, I had a few directions I was thinking of going in: a discussion on the decline of the middle class working musician; the roles afforded women in music (and resulting stereotypes - whether in traditional music or rock); the economic elephant in the room that is streaming... but since it looks like spring has FINALLY ARRIVED here in the Northeast, I'm going to take the advice of friends and family and "Lighten Up!" At least for the moment. I promise a return to serious, heavy topics next time, but for now, here are a couple of recipes to kick back and relax with!

THE BLACK EYE

This drink is a variation on the classic "Black and Tan" (sometimes known as a "Half and Half"), substituting dry apple cider with black currants for the traditional Pale Ale that's usually at the bottom of the glass. (New York State is producing some excellent ciders these days, in the dry, nuanced style of fine European ciders and beers. I recommend checking out Doc's Draft, Slyboro, Aaron Burr, and many others.) This recipe was inspired by my first trip to Ireland 15 years ago, long before my palate had developed its current affinity for the chewy bitterness of a well-drawn pint of Guinness. As an alcoholic version of "training wheels", I was frequently served a glass (half pint) of stout with a shot of black currant juice in it to smooth out the bitterness. It worked.

THE BLACK EYE

8 oz dry apple cider with black currant

8 oz Guinness stout

Pour the cider into the bottom of your pint glass. Using a bar spoon, SLOWLY (that's the key to successful layering!) float the Guinness on top. You should have two layers: the complex, bitter Guinness on top, and the crisp, refreshing cider on the bottom to chase it. ENJOY. RESPONSIBLY. DON'T BE AN IDIOT.


Now, for something a little more food-like:

SPRINGTIME LEMON HERBES DE PROVENCE SALAD DRESSING

Juice of 2 lemons
Zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 c. olive oil (or more if the lemons are especially juicy)
1 T mild honey, such as clover or wildflower
1-2 T Herbes de Provence
Salt and pepper to taste

In a small skillet, gently heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic until golden. Halfway through sautéing the garlic, add half the lemon zest and the Herbes de Provence. Let cool. In a small jar or cruet, combine the remaining lemon zest, lemon juice, honey, and COOLED olive oil. Add salt and pepper to adjust flavors to taste. Mix well. Serve over your favorite greens, or use as a marinade. The honey mellows out the zesty lemon flavors and the Herbes de Provence (usually a blend of thyme, savory, rosemary, basil, tarragon, lavender, and sometimes fennel) provides a nice herbal kick. Perfect with fresh greens, especially great with chicken!

Now get out there and enjoy the return of warm weather!!!

Why

Why?

It is a question we ask ourselves as artists, as individuals, as humans, every waking day. An obvious example for anyone employed in the arts, or who has traded profit for passion, is the "Why" that seems to rear its ugly head every time the bills are due, or the car breaks down, or the gig gets cancelled, or attendance is disappointing. Or when the gig pays well and the room is full, but the audience is loud and drunk and either wants to hit on you or hear Journey covers. Or both.

Then there is the "Why" of what brought us to this whole music/art thing in the first place. Some of us were too young when we started out for any critical thought deeper than, "I want to!" We just knew it was something we really, really wanted to do. Had to do. And even years on, "Because I want to," is still justification enough on so many levels. Once we journey further down that road, however, we (hopefully) become aware of the layers of responsibility that being an artist brings. And as an artist coming from certain long-held musical traditions, traditions which often directly reflect the suffering and experiences of those who had hands in their creation and perpetuation, I'm beginning to realize more and more just how those responsibilities are not to be taken lightly.

Anyone who's heard a murder ballad, a protest song, or had a "soundtrack" to a breakup can attest to the power of music and musical tradition. Though music has entertainment value beyond compare, it can be dangerous to completely divorce a song from its historical context. Songs are expressions of humanity set to melody and you risk losing that humanity by just focusing on the entertainment side of things (not trying to be a killjoy here, as there are certainly loads of songs meant for nothing more than fun. And fun is necessary too!) But consider that many of our most beloved songs have a dark history, whether personal or political. To try to sugarcoat that is to do a vast disservice to the times that created that music and the people who suffered and struggled and were inspired and comforted by it.  

I've been thinking a lot recently about the difference between being an entertainer and carrying on a living tradition as a musician. Having grown up playing traditional music, I can't help but feel the weight of responsibility to those that have gone before; those that have taught me, and those that have taught them. It's jarring to see this respect sacrificed for the sake of a cheap laugh, applause, or a quick buck.

One recent instance I found very upsetting was a holiday show in which the set list included John Lennon's "Happy X-mas, War is Over", immediately preceding the IRA-supporting football song, "Up the RA."  I'm not sure which was more shocking to me: the musical/ethical clash of those two songs back to back, or the audience response. (Audience: "Yay, X-mas, peace on earth." ----> "YAY! Carbombs, terrorism, religious and sectarian violence! But there's clapping and fist pumping! YAY!") And this was at a matinee show at a very nice performing arts center. This wasn't a bar gig. Similar arguments could be made for many songs from the Civil War era, or the more modern example of talking whoopee cushion Mike Huckabee condemning Beyonce for setting "a bad example" for young women while himself cavalierly accompanying Ted Nugent on a marginal-at-best rendition of "Cat Scratch Fever." Playing a song without learning and taking responsibility for its meaning and history is something I'm finding more and more offensive these days.

Bear in mind, I'm certainly not bashing going out to see some live music and just have a good time. There's no entertainment experience on earth that can replace seeing a live show and it's something that needs supporting now more than ever. And not every concert needs to be a profound social and musical commentary. There are some songs that exist purely for the purpose of fun and enjoyment, and those are no less valid than the "heavier" musical numbers that are out there. I just think it's our responsibility as musicians, artists, and entertainers to distinguish and respect the difference.

Music has power to change an individual or collective consciousness. Let's try to use it wisely.

P.S. On a simpler note, to anyone who's ever come up to me (or any artist) after a show to say how much a certain song meant to them: That's Why.