Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What by Whatever

Please forgive my long absence--I just returned a few days ago from a 11-day tour, playing the drums with friend, roommate and multi-personality raconteur John Bellows. The modern journalist might well have blogged from the road, posting updates via smart-phone from truck-stop parking lots, but that's just not my style (or within my technological sphere). The tour was, as tours are, a roller coaster ride, veering from near-transcendent--playing for a roomful of wasted teenage headbangers at Harrison's high-school graduation party in Omaha--to totally mundane, getting high and reading cheap thrillers on the floor of the van as the many hours from Austin, TX to Columbia, MO, drag laconically by.

The tour was planned around some quasi-appearances at the megalithic South by Southwest festival--not a destination I would have chosen, cynical as I am about the modern music industry, but I went along in deference to this guy:

... the aforementioned John Bellows. Anyone who could get a roomful of mentally retarded adults to rock out so blissfully, I figured, would have to be a smashing success at SXSW, where outdoor revelers doggedly drank and toked away their critical faculties. The adjoining tour would be more of a toss-up, but it promised--and proved--a great chance to check out middle-America music scenes in this weird year 2010. What follows is a very subjective roundup, and I'll try to avoid the tour diary tropes which I know would bore my readers.

Iowa City's lineup was rather short on charm--we shared the bill with a trio of solo performers--all pudgy, cantankerous white dudes. Headliner Ed Gray, who Iowans seem to consider some sort of freak-folk laureate, turned out to be a middle-aged guy in baseball hat and tinted glasses, who gave off the prickly vibes of a bomb-builder or sexual predator.

Omaha's show was held at the long-running Hotel Frank, a scrupulously scummy two-wing house whose only piece of proper furniture, a ratty old couch outside the bathrooom, was covered in bloodstains. When we arrived at 9:30 in the evening nobody was home, and snooping around the house we found a severed pig's head in the freezer. The show wasn't supposed to even start until one in the morning, when the neighborhood bars let out. The place started to fill up around midnight. The young, wasted crowd was primed for our unhinged freak-grunge, and remained raucous as we turned things over to a trio of female rappers. While brooding folkies like Connor Oberst and Simon Joyner remain the poster-children for Omaha music, the street-level scene seemed far grittier and more desperate, tinged with the bleakness that you might expect to find, surrounded by hundreds of miles of unrelenting prairie.

We continued southward, our tour tracing a line of hazy mid-American cities that seemed as much dust belt as rust belt. In Kansas City, we hunted down a bag of K2, the synthetic cannabinoid which had just been outlawed in Kansas but was still legal in Missouri. The show was at a cavernous, well-kept loft in the West Bottoms. Local weirdos in the Alters clanged their way through a gripping, scrappy set, the guitar player's hand-built instrument emitting scummy little wads of tin-foily dissonance. The downstairs neighbor showed up with his dog, a feisty young boxer who proceeded to bite concertgoers at every opportunity--he was trained, his owner claimed, to "bite hipsters". The crowd was understandably jumpy by the time we played; they kept the house-lights blaring and a wide berth from the band. Following us was the Brooklynite nouveau-jam-band Prince Rama, riding the wave of early-70s faux-mystic revivalism, replete with beads, crystals and Eastern imagery. I'd have considered taking them more seriously had the drummer not answered, when I asked about the band's name, that Prince Rama was "like, a Hindu god" and that the woman on their album cover was "some yoga chick". Mindless cultural appropriation is alive and well in Williamsburg!

We took a day off in Lawrence, KS to take showers and go shoot guns at the rural home of Beatnik/Hippie socialite-turned-reclusive-libertarian-Fredrick Aldrich, one-time friend of William Burroughs and the author of a pre-9/11 terrorist thriller called Absolute Zero. Then we were off to Tulsa, OK, where we played at a bar called the Sound Pony as an adjunct to their weekly trivia night. Ah, the glamorous lives of rock 'n roll musicians! Following us was the aptly-named Kamikaze Slut, who layered his scummy club jams with clips from porno videos (shocking!).

Many dull hours later, we were south of Austin, at Grady's house in San Marcos, where we played in a sunny backyard with some time-weathered punk bands, Streeteaters from San Francisco and Shellshag, from New York. The singer from Shellshag has been around forever, playing in seminal scuzz-pop bands like 50 Million and Kungfu USA for practically as long as I've been alive; he has decades of road-dogging and rock 'n roll living etched into his supremely haggard face, beneath a scraggly mop of long pink hair--he looks like Kurt Cobain's drunken, backwoods uncle. The band, of course, ruled, and the warm spring sun slowly setting on the outdoor stage made for a wonderfully blissed-out musical experience.

The next morning we dived headlong into the SXSW fray. I was drinking and getting high before noon, wandering around E. 6th Street and soaking up rays. Even the shitty bands sounded good enough, and the good bands sounded great. Portland, OR's Explode Into Colors rocked a fierce, dubby set, the three women clearly forming a deep and powerful musical sorority. We were also able to catch the subjects of a recent Secret Beach hagiography, Olympia's Rainbow Bridge, who played a well-crafted (if too well-behaved) 30 minutes of lazy West Coast ocean-pop, wrapping up with their surfer self-help anthem Big Wave Rider. Our band--we played in the backyard of a bookstore--was well-enough received, at least by the half-dozen or so people who bothered watching us perform. This two year-old kid who toddled up to the stage, at least, seemed to be having a groovy time, and some guy named Bass Turd was headbanging throughout. Our show the next morning was pretty much a total wash. It was set up in a little gravel-patch in front of a downtown hamburger stand, across the street from the SXSW convention center, and the swarthy, moustachioed hamburger-stand proprietor went into convulsions as soon as the first band started playing. "Too loud! Too loud!," he screamed, emerging from the hamburger stand with his arms waving wildly. He was under the impression that the music was scaring off potential customers, and unwilling to be convinced otherwise he started turning off the generator every time a band tried to play. John ended up doing an acoustic set, during which I did my best to sabotage the burger business. "Maybe you don't have any customers because your food makes people sick!" I yelled across the crowded sidewalk. "I saw cockroaches!"

And then we had to start driving again, two long days back up north, to Columbia, Missouri, where it was snowing. We spilled out of the van and into the basement at nearly midnight, where local folkie trio Nature Walk were gently cooing, placid young boys with long beards singing about the forest. How varied is the underground! In St. Louis we played a house show with new-age noiseniks Skarekrau Radio, who performed a bizarre, odiferous spring ritual, head shaman Eleanor Balson saluting the cardinal directions and their corresponding seasons with a melange of burning herbs and obstuse incantations, a heartfelt ceremony which I was not stoned enough to fully appreciate. By this point in the tour our nerves and patience were fairly frayed, and we played a sloppy, detuned set that basically cleared the room.

One final stop, in Bloomington, IN, for a show at a boring bar which was saved only by the appearance of Quincy Quartz, whose tour itinerary we'd inadvertently been following. Quincy Quartz, aka Tyler, is not one of our most technically-accomplished musicians, but he's of that rare breed that does absolutely whatever the fuck they want--in Tyler's case, getting high as a kite and vamping on a consolette organ, cranking out weird, semi-improvised tunes that fall somewhere between Chinese pop and the organ music heard at baseball stadiums. Much of what he does can be clearly filed under "fucking around"--but with what total bliss and contentment, like a solitary shepherd playing his flute! He didn't play the show with us, but he sure 'nuff got us plently high.

In summation, the Kids still seem to be Alright--more concerned with having fun, being cool and getting laid than making durable music, perhaps, but that's what rock 'n roll's always been about, right? Even a silly band like Prince Rama is maybe just the Strawberry Alarm Clock for our age, and who knows but that they might lay down some off-the-cuff gem that ends up on some 21st Century Nuggets-style retrospective, a curio from these troubled times.

It wasn't until our little homecoming show back in Chicago that I had my musical lid totally flipped, by a couple of country bumpkins by name of Big Kitty. A frightfully wholesome and attractive-looking boy-girl duo from Chattanooga, they played a hair-raising set of weird, woolly country songs that were charged with Appalachian spookiness and youthful sexuality, their voices effortlessly High and Lonesome; it was like seeing a teenage Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, or John and June Carter-Cash, or Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, all in their hungry days before fame, fortune and mediocrity ruined them--a couple of scrawny kids, touring in a station wagon, peddling a delirious, modern brand of Anthology-style cave-folk.

And so another tour came to a successful conclusion, having traveled some 2,000 miles, blown several dozen minds, eaten a disgusting amount of potato chips and racked up $420 worth of traffic and parking violations. And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.