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Electric Balloon Tour: A Monument To Man’s Arrogance

The first thing you should know about our show in Phoenix is that it takes place at the Hard Rock Café. Last time I set foot in a Hard Rock Café I was eleven years old. My family and I had won a contest. We got a tour of MTV Studios, and dinner at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square. We had a blast, but even at eleven I was aware that the whole thing was a bit cheesy. Maybe it has one of the hundreds of guitars that, like, Kip Winger bought in the heady days of musicians making money and held in his hand long enough to sign. Music videos play on TVs while you sip a “Lovely Rita”, which is a margarita. There are several brightly-colored variations on the margarita to choose from. You can feel the spirit of John Lennon flow through you as you consume. Or maybe that’s just the simple syrup talking.

Aside from having to stop traffic to load in, we have a soft landing in Phoenix. Unlike many shows, the Hard Rock Café has an actual crew of guys whose job it is to help you carry stuff. They are cool and professional, and at least one of them is a musician too. Also unlike many shows, the Hard Rock Café feeds you if you play there. I get whatever the most wholesome-looking salad is and an “Exotic Margarita”. Yeah, I’ll mock it, but I’m still going to have one. I feel compelled to indulge in the full Hard Rock Café experience. This is how they get you. By “they” I mean the entire idea of commerce. Notably, the Hard Rock Café is the first stop on this trip where someone notices my ID is expired as of my recent birthday and refuses to serve me a drink. I have been carded at least once per day since February 19th, but only here is it a problem. I walk the ten minutes each way to the van to get my still-valid passport. I am going to have my Exotic Margarita on the house so help me God. The waiter is sheepish and apologizes. He probably thought I was bluffing about the walk, and feels bad. But he can’t help me, because Phoenix. Good thing I brought my passport.

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Krill plays a great set as always. Love those guys. Our set goes well, and a couple people even come who saw us last time at the Sail Inn. I am still naively impressed when people we don’t know personally come to see us play of their own free will. Another band on the bill inspires me to come up with a new acronym, in the vein of the classic “GGBB” (Good Guys Bad Band). The acronym is “TMOS”: Too Many On Stage. I’m trying to make this acronym happen, because it is a useful descriptor for a phenomenon you often see on the road. I count three guitar players, playing songs in which none of the arrangements call for more than one or two. There is also a keyboard player with all the most strident patches and two floor toms, unmiked. I’m one to talk, there used to be seven of us, but I can’t help thinking about how I’d pare down these arrangements. The exercise doesn’t hold my attention, and Carlos and I head outside for a walk. Our show is a part of a festival, so we figure we can take in some other shows with our all-powerful “Artist” wristbands. We set out into the fluorescent night.

How to describe Phoenix? In a memorable episode of King of the Hill, Peggy describes it as “a monument to man’s arrogance”, and I don’t think I can do better than that. We played one really excellent show in nearby Tempe our last time through, but this time we are in deepest, darkest downtown. There is no normal deli or bar or restaurant I can see; everything is a franchise owned by a multinational corporation. The bank where you work as an Assistant VP of Foreclosures also owns the TGI Friday’s where you go to tie one on after work. You are the coal miner paid in scrip, only you don’t think of it that way because you wear a tie and work in an office, holding out for that big promotion to VP of Foreclosures. There are a lot of office buildings; there are only office buildings. Nothing you see is more than forty or so years old, since modern urban life in Phoenix was impossible until the advent of central air conditioning, and most of downtown dates back to the early 2000s. Imagine Blade Runner with only technology that currently exists. Imagine Midtown without the halal guys. Imagine an entire city of that hideous glass thing across from the cube at Astor Place (which I found on Google by searching for “astor place ugly building”). That is Phoenix. Please, please, someone from Phoenix read this and get offended and set me straight. Where is the real stuff?

Carlos and I see a tent where a DJ is playing, and use our wristbands to get in. The DJ plays, in this order: “One Love” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Let It Be” by the Beatles, and “Royals” by Lorde. All the hits. He gives an impassioned speech about how he is from Phoenix and he loves Phoenix and he played at the Grammys once and repped Phoenix. The crowd goes wild. A domestic beer is six dollars, and they are out of them. After failing to find a normal bar, we have a beer at a hotel bar called Networks, whose logo features olives. Carlos meets a lady whose job it is to sit in an empty convention hall in the hotel and watch luggage samples. Just sit there and keep an eye on things, make sure they don’t get up and move themselves around when no one’s looking, like the Nutcracker. A lot of people at the bar look like they’re there for the luggage convention. You must see some odd shit tending bar at a place like this. No regulars, just people in town for a weekend, looking to schmooze and misbehave. But not too much; the sort of trouble you can get into at this bar would be minimal. Nothing serious enough to stop the wheels from turning.

We return to the Hard Rock Café in time to catch most of Vertical Scratchers, headed by Best Name In Show Business contender John Schmersal, formerly of Enon. They fucking bring it; it is excellent. Julian actually goes up and talks to him, but I don’t have the balls. He is reportedly a totally nice and cool person. I feel like my palate has been cleansed of the downtown experience. Marie informs us that our would-be local host has disappeared entirely and is not answering her phone, so at the last minute it becomes clear that this is a hotel night. There is not terribly much between Phoenix and Albuquerque, the next day’s destination, so we have to go out of the way a little. We end up rolling into Payson, Arizona and crashing at a Motel 6. It is 2 AM and I have clearly woken up the proprietor and his wife by ringing the night bell. It is the nicest Motel 6 I’ve ever seen. It even has a fireplace in the room. Payson, like pretty much all of Arizona except downtown Phoenix, is full of beautiful desert plants and vividly-hued rock formations. It is surrounded by national parks. We stop at nearby Tonto Creek to hike a little bit and see the fish hatchery. It is just fish in a pool. I am much more impressed by my hike, which takes me up a steep hill to a series of beautiful views. I see a bunch of fresh deer poop, which gives me the vain hope of seeing a deer, but of course they have heard me coming a mile away and made themselves scarce. There are all these clearings where just one tree is burnt to a crisp. Lightning? I assume a brush fire would have affected the surroundings a little more. Anyway, it’s an arresting sight. I am fascinated by the flora of the desert. So many vastly different morphologies so close together, all evolved (or, you know, “intelligently designed” if pious equivocation is your thing) to suck the maximum amount of precious water from the unforgiving terrain. These are hardy frontier plants. If the plants had a war and you had to choose your allegiance, you would want these folks on your side.


In Albuquerque we have the rare dual luxury of staying with good friends in a real live house. It has a porch and everything, and we even have a day off after the show to relax and explore. We stop at Frontier for some late breakfast or early lunch. Frontier has been recommended by multiple independent parties, and does not disappoint. New Mexico has its own homegrown take on Mexican food which seems to revolve largely around the New Mexico chile pepper. The pepper grows here in abundance, and is only exported in inferior canned form, or dried, which changes its character, or shipped frozen at greater expense. Green and red chile are the same plant picked at different stages of maturity, but the green seems to be the more ubiquitous and popular one, so that’s what I get. I have eaten some green chiles in my life, and fresh is a whole different experience. I get some beef enchiladas spiked with green chile salsa, and they are excellent. The green chile has a nice slow burn; it doesn’t hit you all at once, the heat accumulates as you eat, making the end of the meal different from the beginning. Incidentally, combining red and green chile sauce is called “Christmas”. I will have to have Christmas next time.


The show is at Sister, which I have been told is the place to be. I am not disappointed. This is where I would hang out if I lived in Albuquerque. Five dollars at the door to see five bands. Easily thirty or forty different beers on tap. I am told New Mexico is big on beer. The one that leaves the strongest impression is an Abita Grapefruit IPA, which tastes surprisingly light for an IPA, with a finish like grapefruit zest. They have a proper green room, with a shower and everything. A friendly dog belonging to the promoter keeps us company backstage. An old friend from work comes through with his girlfriend. We haven’t seen each other in years, and have a good time catching up. I nip out to grab a slice of pizza down the street, and they give me the whole pie because they’re about to close. What was a bad deal for a slice becomes an amazing deal for a pie. On the way back a panhandler and the guy working the door ask me for a slice, and I give them each one, and there are still enough slices to go around. This pizza is Albuquerque’s way of sending us good vibes. As usual, I haven’t seen much beyond where we eat, sleep, and play, but I like this place. The whole color palette of the Southwest is different: the light, the landscape, even the buildings. Neighboring Santa Fe has rules about what color and material new buildings can be, adobo strongly preferred. If I were an architect I’d be pissed, but as a visitor I get it. It really does look distinct from the rest of America, and the buildings match the land, so that even a brand new H&R Block looks like it’s always been there. I can imagine this hyper-conservative approach playing out in some less fun ways in other dimensions of society, but that’s one of the luxuries of just visiting. I can just take in the parts I see.

Our day off ends up being a lot of driving around to various places of interest without so much recreation in any particular place, but I’m so bowled over by my physical surroundings that I’m having a ball regardless. We have two local hosts shuttling us around, and I have a beer with one of them in Madrid while everyone wanders around looking at textiles or whatever. A Marble Red Ale, which is spectacular, brewed nearby. The high altitude makes it hit extra hard, so we do not have another. In the next room, this band of what I can only describe as “salty dogs” is playing roots music onstage with an actual dog. One of the guys has an eyepatch. Someday I hope to be cool enough to hang with these guys. I notice they are without a bass player.


Other highlights include seeing a thoroughly psychedelic sunset and eating a burger from Blake’s Lotaburger. Blake’s is basically like In-N-Out, a regional fast food franchise of notably higher quality and more reliable freshness than McDonald’s or Burger King. I get a green chili cheeseburger, which is fantastic. They screw up my order and give me a blackberry shake on the house, leaving me way more pleased than if they had gotten it right initially. Back home, our local host makes us her family recipe for enchiladas. This recipe is sort of like a big casserole of Mexican stuff, and it is amazing. Cream of mushroom soup is involved somehow. We top it with salsa and lettuce and tomatoes, and settle in to drink some wine out of a box and watch Repo Man. I haven’t seen Repo Man in several years, and let’s just say it was not a controlled experiment. I am pleasantly surprised how much I still enjoy it. It’s an incoherent mess from a narrative standpoint, but it’s so bizarre and its aesthetic is so fully conceived as to more than make up for its formal shortcomings. Emilio Estevez as a Black Flag-loving suburban punk. The generically-labeled foods and drinks. The amazing scene in the bar, in which punks lick a metal hand. I love Harry Dean Stanton as the elder repo man/mentor, giving an impassioned speech about the power of credit, the irony completely lost on him. And of course it’s eminently quotable. “Fuck this. Let’s go do some crimes.” A cult classic, as they say. I hope a good friend has kids before me so I can show them this movie. I feel like you don’t show it to your own kids, it wouldn’t hit them the right way coming from you.

In other news, I am about a third of the way through my mysterious music theory book, and I still can’t decide if it’s bullshit. I continue to be impressed with its ambition and scope. This guy really thought he was going to change the face of [academic-mostly-white-men-especially-in-the-’70s] music forever. Stay tuned. Our next stop is Austin. Or rather, Austin-during-South-By-Southwest, which is a different animal entirely. But as long as I can get my Chi’Lantro I’m happy. I leave you with this picture of a train transporting tanks, which gives the impression that a bumbling Mr. Bean-style general is storming the trainyard in a comically inept manner.

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