Friday May 3, 2002 [Fire & Water, Northampton MA]:
The Fire & Water Café is like a tempermental cousin. Some
days I get a real premonition that it's going to be a bitch to deal
with, other days I sort of look forward to seeing the corner door
and the attendant wafting odor of earthy home cooking.
Tonight is something sort of in the middle.
A lot of it has to do with Northampton. Northampton feels like a
macrocosmic Cambridge. Highly educated, largely a "moved-in"
population that's slowly suffocating an indigenous working class people.
The upside for us (artists) is that cafes open to accommodate the "let's
move to the rural alternative community" crowd. The downside is they're
a little out of place without a Starbucks.
That's not fair. Most of the people I deal with at Fire & Water are totally progressive. I guess it's that in a progressive landscape, progression can get really oppressive. Sometimes you just want a Budweiser for chrissake.
The show is fine. I'm a little green at the top of this tour, or rather I'm trying to pull out some underused material and I don't know it as dead-to-right as the usual suspects.
I pull the mic into the center of the room and the proximity to the people really loosens me up. I like the middle to end to the set very much. I break a sweat, which usually means I'm working hard enough.
Good conversation with my poet friend Charles. He leaves me a note with a quote from a South American poet who's name I forget: "That which we pay for with our lives never costs too much." This scares me all the way back to Boston.
Saturday May 4, 2002 [Cybercafe West, Binghamton NY]:
This is one of those gig that pays well and there's no real pressure to draw. So getting people out in Binghamton is a totally personal project of mine. Every time I've gone there I've pulled a few more people. This time I draw one person, plus the ten-ish locals who check out the show based on the flyers out front. It's the universe keeping me fucking humble.
Turns into a really powerful show. I talk a lot more personally about the songs and how they came to be than usual and relate a bunch of work experiences in the set, because these people look like they know about work. A good litmus test of your audience is to talk about different kinds of jobs and see who smiles. Tonight I got smiles out of injection molding and freelance writing. That's a nice mix.
Had Karaugh "open" both sets. Made for nice energy and I think she gets a show out of it next time.
Wednesday May 8, 2002 [Mama Gaia's, Cambridge MA]:
A good thing to do at a gig is to pay attention to the players on before your show. The benefit being that they may know the room in which you're actually scheduled to play. Mama Gaia's has recently opened a full-on music room to the left of the café, which now seems to be the province of some kick-ass Portugese and South American players. The music venue side is full of potential; but they need signage, man.
I realize, watching the musicians on the stage, that I hate the distance from the audience to the platform. I tell Ed, the sound guy and room guy, that I want to move the mic down to the floor and play in front of the first row. He seems a little surprised at this notion, but we move it and I like the change. Stages should make it easier to get to the music; fix weird sightlines, all that. But stages can be hiding places in the wrong set up. You get the picture, maybe.
Sometimes there's people out there I think I know, but I don't know. I see faces in this room that open up to me when I look at them directly. This can be a smile or a nod or just the way eyes change when they look back. It's a really tight set for this. When it's done someone says that it was theme-night, mostly political songs. He's right but I don't remember. I just remember this one person looking and lighting up. That's my fuel to Baltimore.
Thursday May 9, 2002 [Ze Mean Bean, Baltimore MD]:
BEFORE: So it's a restaurant, and it's a Slavic restaurant and it's Slavic happy hour. But I just ate some kick ass pierogi. So fuck off.
Two types of rooms in the world. One with a railing around the stage, ones without. Would it paint you a picture if I told you they serve ostrich soup here? Or did they say gaspacho. Either way.
AFTER: Got kicked out of Ze Mean Bean after two songs. They apparently were sure that I was a jazz act. When I asked Our Owner Jim if he'd even listened to press pack he'd booked me from, he asked me if I wanted to step outside. I declined his invitation. It might have been a romantic thing, but I'm full of pierogi, remember?
So I pack up and this jazz band is loading in and it all comes clear. Our Owner Jim double booked the night and scrammed me before he blew it with his regular jazz act.
Told me it was content, that I was "ringing a wrong bell" with his people. His waitress apologized to me for her boss. That's nice. I sell a CD to a guy in the joint. I ask him how his borscht tastes.
DELAWARE: So I haul up to Newark Delaware to Adam Brodsky's show cuz I have an invitation. Adam's such a stand up fucking guy that he puts me on stage in front of a full room and I plug my opening slot for Dan there in two weeks. I can't wait to go back. Hook up with Mary (Adam's manager) and we drive to Philly and bunk down. I feel all over the map and ready to just play for chrissake. Looking forward to having some good moments in Philly at Dahlak. I like Erik Peterson. He reminds me of The Pogues.
Friday May 10, 2002 [Dahlak Philadelphia PA]:
Dahlak seems all wrong until you find the back stairs and find the Cave. Punkers and anarchists and left-wing-post-college-bong-packers cram into this little space full of Ethiopian food and buckets of lagers and a ram shackle rattle-and-buzz PA with various unknown elements blown out of the speaker cabs.
I know it'll feel great to play and that I can push as hard as I like here. Note to self: check ceiling height before climbing on the furniture. I try to lift a foam ceiling square to fit my head through the roof. I default to standing a bit lower on a chair rather than a table.
Met this guy from the old days in Connecticut. I remember he helped me load out one night in 1998 or so, and that the kids at the now closed Seattle Espresso loved him. He seems a little fucked. He tells me that he spent a lot of time traveling; sometimes this'll do that to a person. So, kind of weird but another circle closes. Going back to Baltimore to reclaim some dignity.
Saturday May 11, 2002 [The Bottom Floor, Baltimore MD]:
Baltimore is this anarchic patchwork of rich block/poor block housing. The ride from the downtown hotel to the outskirts of town concert hall runs a full spectrum of Memphis style burned out garbage and semi-pastoral sprawling lawnscapes. People must have to have embarrassment filters for this.
The venue is a breath of fresh air, in some respects: Big hall in the basement of a Methodist church; green room, food, drink, big PA. I walk around a bit and find an ancient joint on a side street called Near East Market. I buy pita, olives, taboule and hummus. That Arab cable news channel is showing Israel in Gaza and this old Lebanese (?) guy in front of me says, "Fighting for nothing. Nothing at all."
So, I sit in this green room, which is also a boy scout meeting lodge right out of 1952 (at Dahlak I sat under a memorial picture of JFK from the Philadelphia paper November 1963) and have this amazing meal from the market. Middle Eastern food reminds me of being in Harvard Square or at least on my own turf. The other performers filter in and some are insecure and some are arrogant and everyone is trying to stake out their territory. Nobody wants any of my food. They all eat lasagna.
The hall is packed. I coax my opening set into a nearly perfect little pocket and stretch the whole thing to some kind of sweet place and it could go further but we don't and it's over. I take partial responsibility. Sometimes it just works and you just ride it and its over and you feel good.
Sunday May 12, 2002 [Fletcher's, Baltimore MD]:
BEFORE: I have lunch with last nights producer/promoter; this guy named Jasaga. Jasaga walks some difficult paths. If what he tells me about what happened to him in 1994 is true, Jasaga's suffered greatly. Otherwise he's suffering greatly.
Baltimore feels like a giant angry Providence, MA in places. It's built around a river like Providence. It's hot as summer here today. I nap in the truck at 4pm, totally overstimulated by all the interpersonal contact on this tour. I'm used to traveling alone and I take two hours to be alone for the first time since the 9th. Kind of fried. Hoping for strength for tonight.
Digestion normalizing. My body always recoils at the road rhythm.
It annoys me when people ask you for more from an opening set than you know you'll have time for. Yes, four songs/five songs is a short set if you're used to me for full shows, but unless I do that 4-5 song thing we'll be in cafés forever.
AFTER: I am totally, absolutely fine. I balanced out with Vivrin and beer and laid down a really satisfying thing here. So the euphoria might be that or it might be the show or it might be just realizing that I'm in my element now and the sputtering start was just a sputter and now I'm banging away on all cylinders. I feel so tight on these stages. These bigger rooms used to warp me. What to do with all that open darkness. Now it's comforting. I lean into the dark and it leans back and we hold each other up and at the end I feel strong and full and ready for nineteen more, mister.
I told Dan, tonight, that it used to be like I visited him at work and like his office. Now I've the good fortune to work in his office, too, sometimes. He said he knew what that felt like.
Monday May 13, 2002 [The Point, Bryn Mawr PA]:
More monsoon weather today. Weird sheets of heavy water slapping down and then the sky breaks. For some reason, all day, I feel like something is about to happen.
The Point is where I first played in played in the Philadelphia area. It's the direct descendant of an old=legendary room called The Main Point. I think they've been in a quandary about what it is I do and this is not-too-subtle audition show.
Voice is cranky in the afternoon. I've been singing properly, but a lot, and this is usually when I start to notice the upper register. Not lose it, just notice it. Whiskey in the green room helps.
It feels really good to stretch out. Four/five song sets are something and I'm pulling a real feel for it from the fabric, but I've not really had a chance to carve into a set. The Point is one of those gorgeous sound environments. There's lighting and atmosphere and I can do whatever it is I'm supposed to do. Tonight is that kind of thing. The people who came out and I were close tonight. This is the first time outside of Club Passim that I've really plugged into the nature of the support in a given community. They're important. I drive back into Philadelphia thinking about how to take care of what's happening here.
Tuesday May 14, 2002 [Urban Word Cafe, Trenton NJ]:
BEFORE: Tired today. Such an intense last few days and these next two days are bit more routine. Open mic feature tonight at this Urban Word place. I'm told it's a cool scene and yet I've also heard there's been some conflict over its direction. Curious to see what happens. Could be heading into a burned out performance environment, or into a scrappy room that's persevering.
Bought new boots today. $15 Docs at a vintage store. Feels fucking fabulous to not have the torn up dogged out boots that I've been strapping to my poor feet for the last year. As usual I feel a certain mix of guilt at buying anything for myself with my tiny budget and also a twinge of self-consciousness at spending the money on second-hand boots. Sometimes this is not the life I imagined a long, long time ago.
I'm almost done in the mid-Atlantic. Tonight's the last night at Mary's apartment. I miss Karaugh a great deal. NYC tomorrow and some time with her attached to that, thankfully. Then I get a day off before heading west toward Buffalo. The cat that lives here is starting to like me. I want a piece of pizza today.
At least by night, Trenton reminds me of Danbury CT or some similar town.
Rebecca introduces me during her set. It goes a long way toward making this open-mic feature feel legit. Good ol' "Special Guest" status might really reek as wrongheaded with your average open miker,
The Urban Word Café looks like it sounds: funky, concrete walls with airbrushed panel paintings and a thin grit over everything. Decent sound. Some NYC-esque vibe in that it's plenty dark and very expensive. I worry about the price attached to the places I play. I couldn't afford to see me a lot.
Feel a little skittish about my truck. It just feels weird sometime. Might be the roads around Trenton. Then again, it might be the rear brakes. Freaking about money today. Got to bang off some money orders at the debt. Low burn concern.
I hear they're posting about me on the Dan Bern list today. At least I'm not slipping down the drain immediately.
One thing about this base of operations in Philly is that I'm nicely centered; but also, I'm gripping it like a life raft. My beer glass smells like puke.
AFTER: Here's the thing. Trenton was totally absolutely into what I just did but there is absolutely nothing financial they can do about me. I have some interesting conversations, however about Trenton, this room, the scene and what people expect from their lives here. I drive away from New Jersey feeling like a painful thorn in their side. Who am I to show off in their town?
Wednesday May 15, 2002 [Sidewalk Café, New York NY]:
NYC seemed to try to keep me out today. I fucked up on Mary's directions to cut across the 13 to the NJTurnpike. Added an hour to my travel and then I crashed into a three mile/one hour traffic jam outside Trenton. Someone knocked down a telephone pole which, understandably, had to be removed from US1. Mapquest imagined it'd be a 1.5hr drive but it worked out to be 3.
Parked on 1st Avenue at 3pm and ate lunch with Karaugh. This totally resets my world to be with her. We wander the Village and I find $100 in the middle of 6th. So we buy tea and then hit the Sidewalk.
NYC: City of costumes. It seems like there are five dozen identities from which one selects and adopts the proper costume.
It's really full at 7:30pm for the first act. This room is typically a crap shoot. Some people filtering in for the 8:30 slot. That's unusual, by my NYC experience. As usual, the waitress here is unhappy. They'd be so much happier if it weren't for these goddamn artists. I tip her; it's on the city.
The set feels sloppy to me. On the other hand the room is rounded out with a cool little audience and I think I do right by them. That's all I'm supposed to care about but I'm ticked off at my brain. It's softening from exhaustion and worn down by the trip in, perhaps. I should've taken Vivrin or something to crank up the cels. Bastards. If I have to play one moretiny set this week I'll explode. I want to stretch again. Am I greedy? I'm told several times that it was good for all and I'm grateful but unconvinced by my own shoddy work. I think the soundman skimmed, I put a $5 in for Karaugh and it never turns up in her take.
Drive home. Get into Boston at 2am and can't find anywhere to park and then I crawl upstairs and pass out and spend Thursday working on catching up when I should be resting.
Back out tomorrow. On to upstate NY.
Friday May 17, 2002 [Java Hut, Worcester MA]:
This place is in weird shape. It's been fighting a paradox. It needs bodies, but it can't stand the youth that want to use it as a punk rock hang-out space. So the community and the room go head to head and some of the nastier kids get kicked out. The vibe is less of a free-for-all; which is both sad and wonderful. On the one hand, it's a Saturday night listening room. On the other hand it's not totally bogarted by smoking adolescents. I kind of miss that. These are happy and terrible changes, all at once.
Allegedly there will be some people here tonight who knew me back in high school. Now I'm looking at everyone like the might be old faces.
Robert Blake is opening up the night. He set me up with the show at Dahlak in Philadelphia. He's setting this room up well. The fucks who complain about Java Hut switching to this more sophisticated listening environment would probably bristle at his Starbucks rant. How can people justify those lame-espresso piss holes? I'd rather pay 2 bucks a coffee to a person than a buck fifty to the corporate loss-leader culture-in-a-box machine. How can we come out of our neighborhoods and the eighties with such fucked up mechanisms?
The show is long and so satisfying. I feel like I play until my chest shakes and then I squeeze a couple more songs into the mix. Someone in Worcester wrote that they think of Captain Kirk when they watch a concert. Fuck you. Ever see how he fucked up that Gorn in that episode? Sideways flying kick, asshole. That's this concert and I remember it fondly all the way home.
Saturday May 18, 2002 [Stimulance, Buffalo NY]:
Last night and tonight are much alike. Both rooms are transforming from bad to better; but in opposite directions. Java Hut is heading in the listening room direction Stimulance is heading in the punk rock hang-out direction. Both are benefiting from their respective trajectories. When this place gets its liquor license it's going to go ape shit.
Two long shows. Last night was 1hr45min, this one's two hours and change. Some interesting boundary crossings. I feel satisfied with these two nights. Nice way to wrap up the first leg of the tour. Long drive tomorrow.
I sleep somewhere between Buffalo and Syracuse. I wake up at 8 and drive until two in the afternoon. I sleep on the couch in our apartment until nine and then go to Club Passim to staff the room during some indie film shoot. I'm fucked with exhaustion and my abdomen hurts from sitting in the driver's seat for fourteen hours over the past twenty four. I get some cool drawings from this girl in Buffalo. She took pictures; says she'll send them.
Go home and sleep more. Preparing for Thursday to Monday insanity. Another Dan Bern opener and then bouncing back and forth between Cambridge and Philly all weekend. What was I thinking?
Thursday May 23, 2002 [East End Café, Newark DE]:
Tonight is an interesting lens on expectations versus execution. It's a long ass drive from Boston. Phil rides out with me, which makes life easier. Another human presence on these hauls tends to somehow diffuse the perception of time.
We pull into the East End lot and Dan's sitting on the wall stringing his guitar. He's still excited about wiffle ball. Grab a hotel room from the Travel Lodge next door to the East End and then there's wiffle ball for a while and then I check out of the scene for a half hour to have my world back.
The East End is a wound for the main act, it seems. I'm told the crowd is a bit smaller than usual. Dan takes off and comes back well washed. I open the room and it goes well. It goes fine. It's a more vocally receptive audience than openers for Dan I've seen. I'm aware of Dan watching the whole time. That's full circle.
Dan's set is the expectation/execution thing. The first set is technically rich, but he just bangs out the songs. This disappoints his crowd. Dan's second set is technically looser but he plays into the audience between songs and they're happy.
I collect my fee and don't sell a thing and get one name on my mailing list. The audience at Fletcher's was more laid back, but bought and signed. I expected more of that from this excited audience, but received nada.
Friday May 24, 2002 [Capo's Cafe, Easthampton MA]:
Strange times. Eight hours from Delaware to Northampton Easthampton, wherever. Phil falls asleep a lot on the way up.
Capo's wants so badly to be vibrant, but the town is geographically challenged. I end up being the sound guy for the first act. This actually helps reset my head. I'm road ragged and only 20% through this routing nightmare. Only, it's only a nightmare to an outsider. I get the show at the end of each seven hour haul and that makes it worthwhile.
The show is wild and wide open. A lot of melodic bending and reshaping. I make up a few short songs and end up playing a 90ish minute set when Joel Cage doesn't show. Since I'm the only draw, I'm pleased with that. So are they. Phil's good company to keep me focused, so we push to get home and I collapse in Boston, delirious from exhaustion.
Saturday May 25, 2002 [Club Passim, Cambridge MA]
I wake up early to set up the sound and backstage at Club Passim. It's their Memorial Day festival, and this is my chip-in. This place has kept me alive for years, artistically/financially/professionally. I feel refreshed from my sleep in my home bed. Jekyll woke me up early; starved for attention. I threw his ball for a while and he settled down.
Club Passim fills in early on, but the attendance fluctuates more than it did last year. Patti Smith and Suzanne Vega are playing a free outside concert at the Hatch Shell tonight. I bet that's knocking some numbers down.
Michael McDermott's on just before me and he lights the room up but there's too few people to see him, damn it. I get really fired up when Michael plays.
The in-the-round that follows is a real treat. We get to offer our particular shape of folk music to the room and the room is half on our side already, so it goes down with some real enthusiasm.
Spend the greater chunk of the night keeping track of and taking care of Michael. He's brilliant and damaged. Book his train ticket to Philadelphia and try to fold his self-destruction back into some kind of manageable packet. He finally implodes and escapes in a cab. I go home wondering if he'll be alive tomorrow.
Sunday May 26, 2002 [The Point, Bryn Mawr PA]:
Easiest trip ever to Pennsylvania. The weather is warm and bright and the roads are almost empty south of NYC. I'm met at the venue by some New York City popster songwriters who seem to spend a lot of time cutting up the room. I keep unplugging and they keep finding sockets in my ribs.
I anticipate Mary's arrival, as she'll steer the vibe out of the whitewater.
Once the NYC cats are packed up and gone, but not before their frazzled, nutsoid scene writer from Maine drips her post-medication baggage everywhere and tries to show me how "to use" events listings in the free paper for which she writes; some sanity returns. I crawl back onto sane earth and have a beer from the dressing room and find a pen and I've eaten a decent mozzarella sandwich. The Point sets me up with a prime spot and my rapport with the possibly dead Michael McDermott keeps me curious.
Did the world get simple? Or did we find it easier to ask only simple things from the world? Bring contention to a room and the room will resist you. I have no sympathy for the contentious.
I get to play just before Michael, who I learn has been here the whole time; but hasn't yet left the bar across the street. The little cricket in the back of my mind goes to sleep after I learn that he's alive and drinking.
I get the stage now. Three songs, and a full room at The Point. Flat out slay the place. I'm charged and they're charged and the final applause lasts and I get the job done. A while later McDermott hits and blows the room away. I follow Mary back to Philadelphia and we figure out how to pursue this touring project in the fall. I say yes to the MidWest and gulp. It's the next phase and I'm going to have to buckle down for it.
Monday May 27, 2002 [Club Passim, Cambridge MA]:
Another easy drive. It's as if the world let up just this once. Slide into Cambridge and eat. I'm starved and the food tastes good for that. Club Passim's Cutting Edge of the Campfire is ramping up for its final evening. A few of us duck out for drinks and when we get back I climb on stage and deal with a most difficult round.
The three other musicians, two NYCers and one Bostonian are popsters and I'm the guy at the end of the stage with all the seriousness and volume. I decide the only way to do the job is treat it like a four song James O'Brien set with three song pauses between each performance. This seems to rattle one of the New Yorkers who tries to make some kind of joke about my gravity on stage, but the audience isn't having it and she gets a groan. That throws the thing into its final mold and later she tries to confront me in the green room and I tell her she's ridiculous. I haven't any time or patience for insecure popsters. The room seemed to genuinely like and respond to what I do and that's the important element.
Later, when the beer is flying and the stage is abandoned for a circle in the room, we trade up rootsy stuff and that's enormous. I get to lay into "Patriot Blues" with a stand up bass and mandolin. It almost swings. I play some harp and pack up and off to long sleeps and preparation. Adieu, May.