Spring 2015 Tour: In Which I Discover Sardines
Our show in Philly is at the Pharmacy, a coffee shop with a tiny and oddly-shaped stage. I order an espresso, which hits the spot. We are soon joined by ET Anderson, an excellent band from Columbia, SC that we played with last year. It was their first show ever, and we were all impressed. We’ll be doing a few shows with them on this tour, and I’m excited. With some time to kill, most of both bands head to the nearby American Sardine Bar. They have multiple beer and shot specials, of which I opt for a tequila and Radler. Radler is sort of a shandy, half beer and half soda, in this case grapefruit soda. I remember ordering a Radler in Hamburg not knowing what it was, and the salty old barmaid laughing and saying it was for young girls. Haters gon’ hate, Radler is an excellent drink for when it’s even a little bit hot out, and a perfect counterpart to tequila. This particular Radler, Stiegl, tastes like those expensive San Pellegrino citrus drinks I love so much. But it’s in a tallboy, and it contains beer! Amazing! I have a good feeling about today. In addition to ET Anderson, we’ll be sharing a bill with Cloud Becomes Your Hand and Banned Books, both old friends and excellent bands. It is a good, strange bill for which I am psyched.
I decide to order some sardine-based foods, since I have never had sardines in any form and I am in a bar with “sardine” in the name. I get grilled, fried, and sandwiches. The sandwiches are the best, dainty little things with onions and spicy mustard and hard-boiled egg and lettuce on soft bread. One thing that is nice about being in a relationship on tour is I won’t be kissing anyone and can eat these stank-ass fish all day with no worries. Close talkers beware. It turns out I love sardines, and I can’t imagine why I haven’t sought them out before. They are intense and fishy and spectacular. The grilled and fried versions make less of an impression. Sardines are not, in my opinion, meaty enough to do any sort of cooking to if you’re going to eat them by themselves. They are also a ripoff at $4, while the more satisfying sandwich is a reasonable $2. It is like a slider of delicious, nasty fish. Amazing. I debate ordering more, but it seems like people are leaving. At least now I know: sardines.
Philly is one of those places with alcohol regulations incomprehensible to the New Yorker. It’s the only place I’ve been where delis do not carry beer and you can buy a six-pack to go from a bar. But down the street from the venue is an apparent deli that has beer. It is called “Jeff Cold Beer”, and I guess they can get away with selling beer because they do not actually have any food? I don’t know. I have gone through the rabbit hole. I get a tallboy of something watery for a dollar. The price is right.
The space at the venue is divided awkwardly in half by support beams, which means the area directly in front of the stage is packed and the area immediately to the left of it is empty. Despite this, the sound is quite good. We have a hell of a time fitting on the stage, but we make it work. The crowd is loving it. One woman demands: “Give it to us raw!” We do our best to give it to the audience raw, which for the bass player means cranking the input gain a bit and playing closer to the neck pickup. Sexy, right? I am extremely grateful when the soundman dashes behind us to turn on the AC halfway through, and I am still gross and sweaty by the end. I go outside to get some fresh air. I run into a kid from my high school who I last saw when I was a senior and he was in seventh grade. He is now taller than me and sports a full beard. He is in a band now, of course. It’s good to catch up for a moment, and always nice to see someone from the past doing their thing. Check it out! The soundman has recorded our entire set, and puts the recording on towards the end of the night. It is disorienting, because at first we think we’re hearing the record, and that is just generally an odd choice of music, but I must say he fucking nailed it. I sincerely hope we are able to get the recordings from him at some future time.
Our lodging for the night is with our friend Andy of Laser Background, notable for being extremely good and also for having another bass player who plays a G&L. His house is under construction, so there are exposed pipes and sticking-out screws and all sorts of other maybe-dangerous environmental features to contend with. It feels like a squat, but it’s actually a house he owns, an impressive achievement for someone my own age. He just tours too much to really finish doing everything. There is plenty of room, and I get to sleep in a bed, so I am happy. In the morning Andy has to go to work and gives us the run of the place. It seems like there’s no rush, and I decide to give this coffee thing a try. I am stymied by the lack of a working stove. How to get the water hot enough? The microwave! The microwave is perched on the edge of the refrigerator, and I have to stand on a chair to access it. Boiling water in a microwave is apparently dangerous because it can superheat and explode, but I am determined. I have the makings of a world-class cup of coffee in my possession, and I will be damned if I don’t get this to work against whatever obstacles may impose themselves. I heat it in 30-second increments until I find the sweet spot. Grinding with the hand grinder is harder than I thought, but also extremely satisfying. I wet the filter with the hot water and fill it with ground coffee, shaking it to make it level. The jar has no handle and is scalding hot, so I wrap a hand towel around it to hold it and pour in just enough to moisten the grounds. I let it sit for the requisite 30-45 seconds and pour as best I can from the unwieldy vessel, in little spirals from the center outwards. It smells really good. I can’t resist taking a sip even though it’s too hot. It is delicious! I can make coffee anywhere. This is a game changer. I am so pleased with myself I make cups for everybody else. It is a comforting ritual with a satisfying result. I drink a cup and make another one to go, in my trusty thermos. As predicted, it makes me miss the lady terribly.
To go where, though? Tonight’s show was supposed to be in Baltimore, which is in the throes of serious civil unrest after the killing of Freddie Gray. I have been in a bit of a news blackout since leaving home, but from what I can gather, said killing seems pretty egregiously fucked up even for the Baltimore police department. The entire city has a curfew after some protests turned to violence and looting. The National Guard has been called in, and there are reports of rival gangs joining forces to kill police officers. The latter is such transparent racist fear-baiting as to be immediately dismissed by serious people, but the fact that a news anchor would utter it is an indicator of how bad things are. A protest is scheduled down the block from the venue, and the promoter has understandably canceled the show. I am disappointed, and then immediately angry with myself for being disappointed. The scale of the wrong that has been committed is just so laughably disproportionate to my minor discomfort at not getting to play a show I was excited about. We briefly discuss the possibility of trying to, like, do something. But what would we even do? Go to a city under martial law and face the real possibility of violence? To what end? We are paralyzed by the inadequacy of any action or response on our part. Is this cowardice? Perhaps, but by that logic we are all implicated in a multiplicity of wrongs. Shit, the average New York City subway commute is a smorgasbord of profound human misery if you’re paying attention. Ignoring the suffering of others is essential to my psychic survival, and really most people’s. Carlos puts it well in his onstage remarks at the show later that day: every day we wake up and make a choice to play music, and this is not a choice we deserve. I am grateful. I got nothing. It is tough to be a person. Ta-Nehisi Coates nails it, as always. Maybe we’ll live in a more just society someday, in which power is not so readily abused, is at least compelled to do a less insultingly piss-poor job of concealing its abuses. In the meantime, stay busy and tell somebody you love you love them.
The show we end up booking instead is at WMUC in College Park. UMD has one of the prettier college campuses I’ve ever seen, both in terms of the landscaping and the fact that the buildings seem to have been designed by architects of the same general aesthetic bent. It is not so much a show as a live radio broadcast with an audience, but we want to play somewhere and we can hopefully sell some merch. I eat a disgustingly large burrito from Chipotle and am exhausted. Chipotle bills itself as being somehow better or more wholesome than other fast food, but let’s be real: this is too much food for a person to eat in one meal. I question whether I will eat breakfast the next day. I try to sleep on a too-short couch in the radio station, and fail. The set goes well, and I guess is broadcast on the radio, which is cool. The students are friendly and accommodating, and do a good job with the sound. We find a guy who offers us his house to sleep in, and it is ideal: several couches, plus a Nintendo 64. I can’t resist just smoking the shit out of everybody in Goldeneye, and am summarily beaten at Tony Hawk, which in my defense I never properly learned to play. One advantage of being a short person is you can sleep on couches other people cannot sleep on, and I avail myself of this luxury. In the morning I make a bunch of coffee. We take it pretty easy, in no rush to get anywhere. I do some work. We have a short drive to DC, where we’ll be playing at one of my favorite venues: Comet Ping Pong.
The name “Comet Ping Pong” obscures the real selling point of the restaurant, which is pizza. There is a big pile of wood outside the bathroom, and it’s not for show. It is for burning in the pizza oven, and you can smell the smoke in the air and taste it in the pizza. It really gets the palate ready to go. The pizzas are personal size, and we each get one. We decide to coordinate our orders and share, which turns out to be a prudent decision.
This pizza is the star of the show. Broccoli rabe, Grana Padano, caramelized onions, and egg. Runny, over-easy baked egg. You break it and the yolk runs out and you dip the other pizza bits in it. It is salty and rich and creamy and savory and just all around fucking spectacular. Egg on pizza is brilliant and I don’t know why more bougie-type pizza places don’t do it. I would slice it in six or eight pieces to evenly distribute the yolk, and do it at the table so you can eat it right away before it gets soggy, but that’s a minor quibble. I have no beef with this pizza. It is perfect.
We don’t want to push it by ordering too many expensive pizzas, so we keep it simple with the remainder. A broccoli rabe, a sausage, a garlic, a spinach with smoked mushroom. The smoked mushrooms are particularly noteworthy, with a much stronger smoke flavor than you generally encounter in mushrooms. Why are smoked mushrooms not a thing? Fuck. I am disappointed in every other fancy pizza place I have been to. I must also shout out the garlic, which is golden brown roasted whole cloves. It infuses the grease of the cheese with garlic-essence. All of this pizza is amazing. The crust is a bit thicker than normal, but the texture makes it light and unobtrusive. It’s mostly air and smoke taste, with a pleasing chewiness. I could eat another whole pizza, but I restrain myself.
The other thing I like about this venue is the eponymous ping pong. The green room is large enough to set up a table, which we do. The lady who booked the show was at the college the day before and works at the restaurant. She is on top of her game, handling all the logistics while also working her shift. The show itself is a blast. We always do well in DC for some reason. It’s one of the first places I remember going to play shows, back when we were still doing long weekends instead of month-plus stretches. It feels comfortable. People buy stuff, and we get out at a pretty reasonable hour. Our friend Dan of Inflated Records is in town, and has graciously allowed us to crash in his hotel room. We have a hell of a time trying to find a place our van can park in the low-ceilinged garage. None of us are really up to the task, to put it delicately. To be fair, it is an objectively difficult problem, as the hotel garage has multiple non-contiguous entrances with different clearances and signage. Eventually we find the exactly one space on the hotel grounds where we can fit, with the help of whoever’s working the late shift at the front desk. I sleep in the space between a bed and a wall. We are awoken by housekeeping, like damn near every other time we stay in a hotel. Hotels should offer a sleep-in pricing plan, whereby if sufficient rooms are empty to insure that you will not interfere with a potential booking you can pay a small fee to actually get enough fucking rest for a traveling person to feel actually rested. They do not offer such a plan, and we are not rested. We eat an overpriced egg/meat/starch breakfast at a diner and set out for Richmond. People at work think my life is, like, glamorous.