Electric Balloon Tour: The Big Easy and Hotlanta and whatever nicknames they have for Sarasota and Tallahassee

Considering I only got two hours of sleep, I wake up surprisingly refreshed. Our first stop for the day is Tulane University, where we’ll be playing an afternoon show. The show turns out to be on the quad, on a slightly elevated platform of grass. The college has secured a truly excellent-looking PA as well as professional folks to set it up. As long as it doesn’t rain and electrocute all assembled, this is going to be a good one. It looks a bit like rain. After we unload, our local host asks if we want to do a radio interview for the college station. Being a soundman and musician and general man about town, he knows everybody. We have just enough time to do a quick interview before our set. It’s a good time. The DJs play “Small Car” by Marvin Pontiac at our request, and we get to plug the college show as well as the other one we will play that night. One DJ, appropriately dubbed DJ Free Pizza, promises to come by our later show and bring pizza. She works at a pizza place, and gets all the leftovers at the end of her shift. So far, New Orleans is treating us right. New Orleans is generally good like that.

When we leave the station, our friend John is waiting at the quad with a six pack of Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager. John is in Native America, one of the bands we’ll be playing with later that night. We’ve played with them as well as his other band, Sun Hotel, on previous trips, and we love their shit. We play our set and head back to the place we’re staying for more sleep. While I am asleep, some of the others go out to a fish fry and a bar. I am jealous about the fish fry, but definitely not trying to hit bars so early on so little sleep. Napping again was the right thing to do. I have to be able to hang out tonight. In addition to Native America and Krill, we’re playing with another band we love, Caddywhompus, a duo that somehow manages to sound like at least four people. The complicated guitar effects setup and mini-stack of speakers accounts for part of this illusion, but not all of it. They are just extremely good. We have also heard unequivocally encouraging things about the night’s venue, Siberia. I know it will be a late night of listening to excellent bands and drinking and carousing, and I need to make the most of it. It is extremely fortunate that our time in New Orleans happens to fall on a weekend.

Siberia is absolutely all it’s cracked up to be. Good vibes, cheap drinks, a proper green room, and food. Good God, the food. I get a “Russki Burger”, which is topped with garlic mushrooms, spinach, cheddar and Swiss cheeses, and Russian dressing as well as the standard burger fixins. This burger is superlatively tasty. It is not quite all the way up there with Grain and Gristle, but it is damn close. The bun is a fresh onion roll that would be spectacular by itself, and the ingredients work perfectly together. I try to take a picture, but it’s too dark, and I don’t want to kill the vibe with flash. Everyone orders different things and is similarly ecstatic about them. The order is Native America, Krill, us, and finally Caddywhompus. Everyone brings it; this is easily the best lineup of the tour. We have a big crew here, and we feel at home. Bars in New Orleans allow smoking, which makes the bar a little stuffy, but not to the point of being unpleasant. And you can carry your drink outside if you want a breath of fresh air; every bar has a generous stock of to-go cups for this purpose. Having a drink out on the street is a revelation. You don’t realize how annoying it is to be stuck inside until you and your beer are set free. You can take the party anywhere. It is fucking righteous.

Our small party grows as friends of friends come to check out the show, and the DJ does arrive with the promised pizza. I don’t even have any, I’m still stuffed from my burger, and probably still have not fully digested the previous day’s food from not sleeping. I am told it is excellent. One of the slices involves chopped peppadews, which is a brilliant idea I make note of for the next time I am involved in pizza production. A plan begins to materialize. The guy we stayed with before has shacked up with a lady for the evening and is MIA. I like to think our set helped him seal the deal. Another friend has offered to put us up, and he has a bigger house that can accommodate both touring bands. We will get paid, load out our stuff into his house, and walk over to a bar nearby. Those who want to stay back and sleep can do so. It is at this time that I learn another amazing feature of drinking in New Orleans: there is no closing time. The bar we will be going to is open 24 hours. I have to experience this. I’m getting my second wind. I’m in.

The place we’re staying is in the Bywater, which our host tells us is like Bedstuy or Bushwick: historically hood, now being settled by artsy white people such as ourselves. He then proceeds to tell us a harrowing story as we walk to the bar. A couple was walking on this very street a few weeks back, and a man with a gun tried to rape the girl, and somehow they managed to get the gun from him and kill him. We are not in Bedstuy anymore; this does not happen on my block. I am wary, and glad we are rolling deep. The walk passes without incident, but I can’t help noticing how empty the streets are aside from us. Words like “poverty” and “safety” have very different meanings depending on where you are. We are in the neighborhood right next to the desolation of Hurricane Katrina, and you can still feel it in the air. The true luxury of touring is getting to see places you wouldn’t think to go in the company of people who know them.

The bar we go to is J & J’s, a few blocks from the house. Am I being hyperbolic if I say this is the best bar I’ve been to in America? I honestly can’t think of a better one. It is a legit dive, not a “dive” in the incoherent buzzword sense with which people in New York use it. An older Cajun guy, one of the owners, greets us from behind the bar. The light has a pale bluish quality, and the thin haze of smoke makes everything look luminescent. The vibe is a little seedy, but also welcoming, and very relaxed. I am struck by the diversity of the crowd. People of many ages, ethnicities, and walks of life are getting thoroughly loaded here. Some older guys who look like they come here every day and have de facto assigned seats are watching sports on TVs above the bar and chatting with the owner. Serious pool hustling is in effect. Our host ushers us to the back, where there is a patio. Perfect. My initial good feeling about the bar is reinforced when I order a shot of Jameson and receive the most generous pour I’ve seen since Big Snow Buffalo Lodge closed. There are easily three or four ounces of Jameson in here, for four dollars. Why is this bar not in my home town? Because if it were, it would be different. New Orleans is an island unto itself.

I spend a while talking to a guy that a few of our friends seem to know, sitting near us on the patio. A tall, hard-looking black guy around my age in a bleach-white T-shirt, pants at knees, brand new baseball cap at a carefully calculated angle. He does some slinging, I am told, and also works as a cook during the day. No way is he going to talk to some shrimpy white kid he doesn’t know about his primary profession, so I figure I can engage him about food. Someone we’re with has told me he is an amazing cook, and I’m wondering if I can learn anything. People from New Orleans take food seriously, so a good word here means he’s probably really good. I buy him a Jameson in an attempt to butter him up. But it’s no use, he’s not giving me an inch. Nor should he, I guess; who the fuck am I?

“So what’s your specialty?”

“Pastas.”

“What’s your favorite kind of pasta to make?”

“Man, I could make whatever you want”.

And so on. I do learn that he has been cooking since he was ten years old, which explains his reticence; he has earned this knowledge and I have not. That he is married, but he and his wife are non-monogamous (“She do what she do, and I do what I do.”), and that he gets a lot on the side, but he’s not worried about her leaving him, because he is highly confident in his sexual prowess. That he recently lost his phone, which makes him nervous, because it is full of homemade pornography. He eventually leaves with a girl he has been ignoring all night who makes an endearingly clumsy pass at him, and I go back to shooting the shit with everyone else. He is not the sort of man who has to seek out the attention of women; they come to him. The owner comes out back to pick up the empty glasses and politely thank us for not making a lot of noise. He’s not even being facetious; we are a very well-behaved crew. New Orleans is a big drinking city, but something in the air encourages and propagates civility. This whole drinks-outside, no-closing-time thing would lead to the complete breakdown of the social order anywhere else. The temperature is perfect, and I am thoroughly in the hat. I remember looking at my watch around 4:30. I am told we made it home around 7. I am told this is not an abnormal Saturday night in New Orleans. Our host wakes up right around when we do, looking fresh. Then we’re off to Tallahassee.

The climate in Florida does not agree with me; the air is like a thick syrup. But our show promises to be a good time; it is a house show with a keg. The sound is amazing, and there’s no clear reason why. We’re just in the corner of a living room, only vocals through the PA, like always, but the balance is perfect. Opener Smooth Church is awesome, and gets extra points from me for actually using a Monotron onstage. We stay with friends on a floor. On our way to breakfast, we pass this amazing tableau.

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I had thought of Shriners as being a Northeastern thing, but I guess they’re everywhere. The whole thing seems just so terribly quaint to me. I know it’s sort of like a rotary club with some trappings of ritual and a focus on funding children’s hospitals, but I can’t imagine the sort of man (I believe it is still limited to men) who would be attracted to it. Except Michael Richards, who isn’t doing them any favors. I wonder if this hall has fallen into disuse, since the statues are so grimy. I see that the hall is available to rent for events, and I wonder if anyone uses it for shows. Maybe next time.

In Sarasota, we play at a bike shop at New College of Florida. They have an on-campus bike shop, apparently, and behind the drums are easily thirty bikes in different states of repair. Spanish moss; palm trees. Girls are dancing barefoot, passing around joints. I think of colleges in Florida as being sort of bro-y and sports-centric, but clearly this is where the hippies go. It’s a small show, just us plus Krill, and it’s over early. After our set, some students take us to the bay to drink Busch and look at the water. It is a perfect coda to the evening. Drinking a beer next to water is one of life’s great pleasures, generally less accessible back home. I would probably go pretty elaborately mad if I went to school here, but I understand the appeal. I felt something similar in Isla Vista. It’s not at all for me, but there is something to be said for being around so much natural beauty.

The next stop is Atlanta, where we are always among friends. This time we play at the brand new Mammal Gallery, a big DIY space in the middle of downtown. Previous Atlanta trips put is in the Little Five Points district, which has a very different feel, not unlike a Southern St. Marks Place. Downtown is pretty dead, and I’m told the Mammal Gallery got a grant to make some culture happen around there. Food options are few and far between. There is some extremely dubious-looking teriyaki, which I avoid. Everyone who eats it regrets it. I take a ten minute walk to get to The Smoke Ring, the nearest barbecue I can find. I am below the Mason-Dixon line; it is time to get down on some tender-ass pork. I get it to go, and they neglect to give me sauce, which is a mild disappointment. But honestly, this pork holds up. It is extremely smoky, accompanied by a perfect little piece of jalapeno cornbread and some crispy Brussels sprouts with a maple glaze. I do not see another living soul on my entire journey, and I can see why the city would see fit to encourage artists to do their thing around here in an attempt to boost the exchange of goods and services after 5 PM. This is a new side of Atlanta, sort of like the part of Midtown where I work. Business is done here, but not a lot of living. The Mammal Gallery is an oasis of good times in a concrete desert.

And good times are had. We’re playing with bands we like from our last time through town, Hello Ocho and Warehouse. Hello Ocho kills it, as before, but the star of the show is Warehouse. The last time we saw Warehouse, we had a pretty intense transcendent experience with it. Rarely do all of us fall so hard for a band at once. It’s hard to describe why it works so well, the recordings don’t quite catch the feeling of being in the room. The singer has an intensely gravelly voice, like Corin Tucker on three packs a day, and stands completely still with her hands folded behind her back. She somehow makes this extremely low-key presentation look intense and engaging. She has a simmering swagger, like the Druidic high priestess of some long-dead matriarchal society; I’ve really never seen anything like it so close up. The bass player is straight up one of the top five bass players I have been in a room with. I told him this the first time I saw them, and he was amused. He’s not even primarily a bass player, he just picked it up because the band needed it, but he’s unbelievable. Melodic and driving, extremely busy but unobtrusive, the sort of thing I tried to pull off before I said fuck it and decided it was easier to keep it sparse. What he does has never come naturally to me, and it’s a pleasure to see it executed so powerfully. Over all this are some spectacular interlocking guitar lines. Warehouse is the full package. Everyone who runs the Mammal Gallery is cool and on top of their shit. They invite us to hang out downstairs, in what is possibly the coziest DIY living space I’ve set foot in, clean and full of comfy surfaces. Whenever we play a really good DIY spot it always makes us miss Big Snow, and it’s cool to see that spirit in so many new places. Heartening. We crash at our friend’s mom’s house, and are fed some really top-notch breakfast burritos in the morning. Next stop, Charlotte.

2 responses on Electric Balloon Tour: The Big Easy and Hotlanta and whatever nicknames they have for Sarasota and Tallahassee

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