Natural Bridge, Virginia, is home to a genuinely bizarre and cool roadside attraction: Foamhenge. Foamhenge is the work of sculptor Mark Cline, a man with an esoteric personal vision if ever there was one. Yes, there is indeed a full-size replica of Stonehenge made out of foam, but there is also this:
And, most amazingly, this:
That’s Ian of Krill, channeling Merlin’s psychic energy. Mark Cline definitely seems like the sort of neighbor who is always asking you to hold oddly-shaped packages of uncertain provenance for him while he goes on mysterious trips. I love the bizarre audacity of this project. And although up close you can see the paint flaking off and little chunks of foam missing, the effect from certain angles is quite striking. Krill recently had the privilege of visiting the real Stonehenge, and all agreed that Foamhenge is better. I am charmed by it. What an awesome thing to just build by the side of the road for no end beyond its mere existence. You don’t pay for it, and there’s nothing to do there except see it and contemplate it and take some pictures. There is a uniquely American weirdness at work here. I want to buy Mark Cline a beer and learn everything about him.
After our brief stop at Foamhenge, it’s off to Raleigh. The show is at Neptunes Parlour, a cozy little space downstairs from Kings Barcade. Our last gig in Raleigh was at Hopscotch last year, but we also played at Kings back in 2012 or so with Sharon Van Etten. We are pleased to see the show poster from that night still prominently displayed downstairs. We are greeted by the promoter standing outside in a parking space to save it for us. This is the kind of service a touring band deeply appreciates, a small gesture that makes the beginning and end of the night significantly easier. We park right outside and load right in onto the stage.
The “stage” is half actual stage and half floor space behind the PA. As a shorter guy generally placed behind a taller guy at shows, I love this setup. I can see right over Carlos’s head to the audience. Julian and I set up on the stage, and the singers on the floor in front of us. Still paranoid about my amp after the previous night’s fiasco, I set up Jonah’s amp directly on top of mine. I still want to try to use mine, because we’ll have to do without Krill’s equipment for the end of the tour, but this way if it dies out I can plug right into the other one. I must give the Markbass company credit, a customer service rep responded to me within minutes of me emailing them. The two potentially useful suggestions he gave me were to lower the input level so there was absolutely no clipping at the input stage, and to try using a different speaker cable. What the hell kind of amp is it that can’t take a little clipping? Isn’t that, like, where distortion comes from? I don’t drive the thing very hard; this is some weak shit. But fortunately most of the sound comes from my preamp anyway, so I can just turn up the master volume to compensate and get a sound close to what I’m used to. Because tour is no time to apply the scientific method, I also switch speaker cables. I don’t care what the problem is when I’m in front of a roomful of people, I just care that it’s solved. There will be plenty of time when I’m home to troubleshoot in greater detail.
We have some time to kill between soundcheck and the first band, and the promoter recommends the nearby Mecca Restaurant for dinner. It’s right down the street, the cuisine is described as “Southern”, and it’s been open since the 1930s. Sold. Ordering takes a while, as they do not have several of various people’s first choices. It’s a Monday, a slow day, and I can tell from how our waitress literally sprints across the room and up and down the stairs to take orders and transport things to the kitchen that they are shorthanded. We are given copious amounts of iced tea while we wait, as we have all ordered dinner specials that include it. Our food eventually comes, and it is worth the wait.
I get a pork chop with pickled beets and turnip greens. The smaller plate on the right is a roll and a single hush puppy. Perfect. I love hush puppies, but I think between one and three of them is just about the right amount to eat. It’s got a great toothsome crispness. The pork chop is a little tough, but very tasty, black pepper and a strong note of smoke from the charbroiling. Turnip greens are a revelation. They’re sort of like collard greens, but more tender and with a different balance of sweetness to bitterness. There is some sort of ham hock or other cured pork product in there for saltiness, in the classic Southern way. I also try some of Carlos’s steamed buttered okra, which is delicious. My favorite preparation of okra is fried, but steamed with butter is a solid choice nonetheless. The star of the show is the pickled beets, which are bright and tangy and just generally a perfect complement to the other flavors. I am just the right amount of full. I hope to come back next time through.
Back at the venue, I go backstage to do some work on my laptop. Opener Wool puts on a great set, which I unfortunately have to miss most of because I am running benefit eligibility reports. I spend most of our own set worrying about whether my amp will shit the bed again, but fortunately it does not. There is some sort of corollary of Murphy’s Law at work here; things don’t go wrong when you are prepared for them to go wrong, even if your preparation in no way avoids the potential problem. Whatever, I’m happy it works. Now I can concentrate on the fact that we’re playing three new songs we don’t know that well, and feel that special terror of hitting a downbeat not entirely sure if the pitch I selected is the correct one. Most of them are. By the time we get home, it will all be second nature, and I can focus on minute adjustments of tone and hand placement that probably no one else will ever notice or care about. I eagerly await that day.
After our set I run to the merch table, where I am pleased to see how many people remember us from Hopscotch. One guy has seen us at Snug Harbor in Charlotte, and another even remembers the show with Sharon Van Etten. It’s always nice to have interactions like these when you go someplace for not the first time. They serve as little reminders that you’re not doing all this hustling for nothing; someone outside your immediate circle of friends and family cares. We sign a T-shirt and an LP. I hand off merch duties to Julian, and go back to my laptop to try and work more. There is still a PBR in the cooler backstage when we leave at the end of the night. Does this mean we’re getting old? One of my goals for this tour is to drink less terrible beer than I am accustomed to drinking on tour. A year ago I would have chugged it, or taken it for later. But now it sits in the pool of melted ice, waiting to be put back in the cooler for the next band that comes through.
We’ll be staying at our friend Mike’s house in Raleigh, as we did last time we came through. As before there is much snacking, and again there are exactly nine people for the nine Bagel Bites that come in a box. There are also chips and salsa and hummus and gherkins, which come with an amazing plastic implement built into the jar that allows the snacker to elevate the gherkins without reaching into the jar. I don’t fuck with gherkins, but I have to appreciate this awesome piece of engineering.
The evening’s entertainment is Billy Madison, which I had not seen since I was about eleven years old. Whose idea this was, I do not know, but it was an inspired choice. Like all Adam Sandler movies I can think of, the women are pliant plot devices and the people of color are ridiculous cartoons. However, I am not above a hearty chuckle at the bellowing id of Adam Sandler’s early years. His comedy reminds me a lot of Will Ferrell’s, in that a lot of it stems from how inherently funny-looking his face is with those close-set eyes. I forgot how many classic roles were in this movie, like Chris Farley’s miserable bus driver and Steve Buscemi’s lone gunman. And the humor is way darker than I remembered. When Norm Macdonald says “This is the best night of my life!” after depositing a flaming bag of shit on an old man’s doorstep and watching him step on it, you believe him, and you laugh differently as an adult. And this speech at the end has still got it. The bulk of the movie depicts a grown man’s conflicts with children, and scenes that are played for laughs are pretty fucked up when you think about them for a minute. People who worked on the movie reported that all the kids cried during the dodgeball scene because he actually hit them really hard. And then there’s the creepy scene where the little girls give the protagonist valentines. When you’re a kid, you think Billy Madison is about a deranged man-child. When you get older you realize it’s something else: a movie about a deranged man-child by a deranged man-child. Some of the best comedy comes from those who are not as in on the joke as they think they are. It cracks me up. I am not better than Adam Sandler, I guess, when it really comes down to it. Also the pants-peeing scene is still extremely sweet. Contrast this with our attempt to watch the first Ace Ventura movie on our last tour, which just completely failed. It wasn’t even possible to finish, even though I abstractly like Jim Carrey much better.
In the morning, I am quite disappointed to learn that I am the only one who wants to go to the Q Shack. My heart yearns for brisket. I comfort myself with the knowledge that we will be deep in barbecue country for the next several days, and there is no way this is not happening at some point. In Austin, in particular, I intend to fully annihilate all manner of animal remains. For now I eat a breakfast sandwich from Starbucks, which is by no means bad but always feels weirdly artificial in the texture of the ingredients and how the heat is distributed. Then it’s off to Atlanta.