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SXSW 2015 Tour: Waist-Deep in Luggage

Packing the van is a little different on each tour. No matter how much you think you have it down to a science, something always changes: a new piece of gear, an old piece of gear in a new case, or most commonly just a complete failure to recollect what you did last time that used every square inch of space so efficiently. I have just about enough room to sit in the back seat, surrounded by sleeping bags and merch and all the other things that don’t fit anywhere else. Over the course of the next ten days, we will get better and better at this, and then we will go home and forget again in time for the next tour.

I spent the earlier part of the weekend recovering from a freelance gig I did on Friday. I never really put myself out there as a freelance guy. As a seasoned HR professional with a stable day job I don’t desperately need the money, and Ava Luna keeps me busy enough most of the time, but every now and then I get a call from elsewhere. The gig was a release show for singer-songwriter Taylor Berrett, one of the many artists my dad’s old friends from college produce. Did you click that link? They’re kind of a big deal. I figured if they were calling me to do a gig on short notice for the first time ever they must have been in a bit of a jam, and I wanted to help them out since they’re old family friends and they helped me out in high school by letting me hang out at the studio instead of taking another AP class. I could either go out and spend money on drinks and food, or go on this trip and get some money and possibly also free drinks and food. So on Friday I found myself getting picked up from my office at 11 AM and driven to Vienna, VA, about five hours from the city. The gig was at Jammin’ Java, which I’ll be damned if that isn’t the cheesiest name for a venue I’ve ever encountered in my travels across the world. They don’t even serve coffee! Why “java”, then? Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? It’s a shame, because the venue is wonderful: friendly, professional, good food, good sound, really everything you could want as an artist or audience member. Fortunately the locals are not dissuaded by this misstep of branding, and the house was quite nearly full. They know what’s up, and I’m a city slicker asshole for judging in the first place.

I would be playing with no rehearsal, just learning the songs on my own time and going over the hard bits during soundcheck. This was exercising a different part of my brain than usual, and I was slightly nervous. I was confident I knew the material, but I’m a perfectionist and knew it wouldn’t be perfect. Fortunately the guitarist and drummer had done the gig before, and Taylor was very helpful in explaining how the live arrangements differed from the recordings. I managed to not embarrass myself at soundcheck, and the singer and other musicians seemed happy. We did indeed get free food and drinks. The bass player for the other band turned out to be a friend of a friend from Brooklyn, because the world of traveling musicians is real small, and it was cool to see a familiar face. It was also cool to get a comped drink that wasn’t a domestic macrobrew in a can. I opted for a Bulleit Rye, neat. Probably the last top-shelf drink I’ll get for free for some time. I savored it. Only one before the gig, because I needed to have my wits about me.

One thing I love about freelance shows is I get to play one of my dearly beloved Hohner headless basses. The tuning I use in Ava Luna limits me to my G&L, or as a backup my old modded Ibanez SR300, but on a normal gig I love to break out the headless. They’re light, ergonomic, visually striking, and they stay in tune. For this gig I opted for the black and white one, recently set up and fitted with a strap hook by Flip Scipio as a birthday present from my dad. I love this silly old thing. It’s like a tuxedo; it goes with everything. People who play headless basses and guitars tend to be pretty out there, and I proudly count myself among them. Protip: using the bottom strap button instead of the top one puts it at the ideal angle and height for picking.

Taylor is young, 22, a fact I didn’t immediately realize because he’s about a foot taller than me. The other guy, Dylan Gardner, is only 18, which made the thorough knowledge of Big Star he demonstrated during soundcheck even more impressive. So the crowd skewed a lot younger than the usual Ava Luna crowd, and there were many parents in attendance. It’s not the sort of music I generally listen to, but the guy is very talented and his onstage persona is genuine and immediately likable. Way better than, say, Ed Sheeran, who I think would be considered the competition in this space. I didn’t fuck up anything terribly egregiously enough for the audience to notice, and in fact nailed the majority of the things I had been worried about. The guitarist and drummer were very much on the ball, and easy to lock in with. The last song called for a bass solo, which I sincerely hope was not recorded. The crowd ate it right up. A lot of kids asked to take selfies with me, and I bemusedly obliged. Seriously, you want to document your interaction with the bass player? Not even the regular bass player, the sub? Well, shit, how sweet of you. I also signed some posters. Kids don’t know if you’re a big deal or not. An older lady brought Taylor brownies, which he shared with the band. They were spectacular.

After the show, we decamped to the Berrett household to sleep. The Berretts are the sort of religious and culturally conservative people who make you genuinely wonder why we can’t all just get along. They are lovely; kind and hospitable and hilarious. We stayed up pretty late shooting the shit and snacking on frozen pizzas and Oreos and the brownies. We woke up quite early to catch the Metro, which we would take to Amtrak and finally to the subway upon arriving back in New York. We left the house around a quarter to 8 in the morning, and I set foot in my own room around a quarter to 3. Quite a journey for one show, and I immediately decided I would do nothing else that day except nap and eat food I already had in the house. I was quite pleased to find that not one but two episodes of Broad City had become available since I last watched it, and I still had some pasta and red pesto to eat. I took a short nap, and then a long one, and then finally went to sleep for the night. I put off packing until the morning. I’ve gotten good about leaving certain things in certain bags so I only have to deal with clothing. I’ll be entirely out of socks and underwear when I get home, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Our first stop is Harrisonburg, VA, home of James Madison University and the MACROCK music festival. We’ve been through once before to play the festival, and it was a great time. People were hospitable and the crowd was psyched and one of my favorite pictures of us ever taken was taken at a house show after the festival, crammed in a corner, all of us falling down one by one like dominoes. I cannot locate this photo at press time, but trust me, it’s a good one. I am optimistic. Harrisonburg has a distinctive aroma, not exactly unpleasant, but definitely noticeable. When one of us finally got up the courage to ask one of the locals about it last time, we learned that it was from a nearby dog food factory. They say you stop noticing it after a week or so. I wonder if everyone’s lungs are lined with little particles of dog food, like a coal miner’s with coal.

We make a food stop at the Artful Dodger, a cafe where we played for our MACROCK show last time through town. We meet Krill, with whom we’ll be doing a few gigs on our way down to Austin. It is good to see them. I eat a quesadilla, which is pretty good. I’m still hungry, and decide that whatever food I get here will be better than what I can get late at night. I’m one meal behind for the day, anyway. I order a large salad, no cheese, dressing on the side. Never miss a chance to eat vegetables on the road. This is a rule. Inside the cafe there appears to be some sort of open mic in progress. A man in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts is playing Blink-182’s “Dammit” on an acoustic guitar. He is standing bolt upright, and emoting the shit out of it, strumming hard, not quite in tune. In the back, a few bored students sit on laptops doing homework. One man in the front is doing an elaborate sort of breakdance to the music. He is clearly fucking with the guy onstage, but not knowing how to address such an odd form of physical heckling, the guy soldiers on. I admire his determination. Buy a tuner, though.

The show is at Crayola House, a DIY venue that has been in operation for about thirty years. We’re playing in basement littered with beer cans and festooned with graffiti. A ventilation duct requires the visitor to duck on the way in. I feel immediately at home. A bunch of people remember us from our last time in town, and the crowd is amped. Local opener Malatese plays a great set, and we trade tapes. Krill, as usual, kills it. Our own set is a bit complicated by my amp head dying in the middle of the third song. This has happened a few times in the past; always completely unpredictable and impossible to reproduce later. What the fuck is with this thing? It is definitely the head and not the cabinet. Fortunately Krill’s amp is on the other side of the stage, and I am able to immediately switch over. It sounds totally different and I am in everyone’s way, but we get through the set without further incident. I hate not being able to trust my gear, and now it is something I will have to worry about for the rest of tour. I try to put it out of my mind. The crowd is happy, and I can rely on Krill for a backup if it happens again. I drink a Natty Boh. It helps a little.

We sleep upstairs at the house, in a room just exactly large enough to accommodate the five of us. In the morning we head out to L&S Diner, which was recommended by one of the kids at the show. It is a totally standard and satisfying diner experience. I get bacon, eggs, home fries, toast, and coffee, doused with Texas Pete hot sauce. I am hoping to front-load breakfast so I am not tempted to eat something gross en route to our next stop in Raleigh. A standard American breakfast isn’t exactly good for you, but at least it’s real food made from scratch in front of you by a human. As usual, I resolve to exercise more upon my return home.

For me, these journeys come in cycles. A few months of inactivity, and I settle into the luxury of normal adult routines: getting enough sleep and physical activity and eating food not prepared by a multinational corporation. Then I get restive, and fortunately that tends to be right around when it’s time to go again. Then I get exhausted and I’m ready for home. This one is bittersweet, because for the first time in a while I have someone back home I’ll be missing. The men and women who date musicians deserve some serious props for their patience and understanding. But all I can do is be present and enjoy it while it lasts, and home and everything that comes with it will still be there when I return. Today we will be going to a life-sized foam replica of Stonehenge, and you better believe I’ll be taking pictures.

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