When I was first approached the year before last to play in Huntsville, Alabama, my first reaction was not on your life. Then I thought how many English musician can say they’ve played in Alabama? I accepted the offer and on the day I drove there from wherever I was the night before in fear and trembling. I was pleasantly surprised. The venue was the brewing room of a micro brewery. There was a small, makeshift stage between the big aluminium vats. The place practically had a dirt floor and there were huge doors that opened onto the parking lot.
The show went really well. There were a lot of young people. One of them told me I didn’t know what I meant to kids in Huntsville. These kids were smart, the sons and daughters of scientists and astronauts. I hadn’t realised that Huntsville is the headquarters of NASA. I wondered why the approach was cluttered with ornamental satelites. I met a couple of retired astronauts and a computer scientist who told me he’d designed software that was currently orbiting Venus. It was a fun night.
I went back last year and played at Vertical House Records. They wanted me to play at the brewery again but my car broke down and I had to reschedule, and the brewery was undergoing certain changes. I was looking forward to playing there again but what I hadn’t realised is that the brewery has become hugely successful and they’ve moved the whole operation into a purpose built building on the other side of the street with none of the ramshackle charm of the original place.
I was playing in the bar. The stage area was defined by an area rug, or more likely a large doormat, positioned between the door and the corner of the bar, with a space in front of it for waiters to trot back and forth carrying orders of pizza. The place was vast, thirty feet high with a tin roof. There was nothing in there to soak up the sound of fifty or sixty chattering people who were there principally to talk shit and drink beer.
The only way to deal with that is to either drown in the hubbub of conversation or turn everything up too loud so that people actually realise there’s live music going on. Then it’s a question of alienating the people who aren’t interested - I find a combination of personal remarks, insults, stories in questionable taste and quotes from Metal Machine Music do the trick. In Huntsville it took about twenty minutes and then I was able to play for the people who’d come to hear me do that. The problem in Alabama is that charging admission requires a special licence so a lot of shows are free. You get a flat fee and in the end nobody’s very happy. they should do something about that.
None of this is easy. The shows are getting crazy. Sometimes everything goes to plan and I feel as though I’m walking a tightrope six hundred feet up with no safety net, other times I might as well be in freefall. Things go wrong - feedback refuses to be contained, guitars detune themselves in the air conditioning, sound engineers blame the shortcomings of their ill-maintained equipment on my amplifier and pedal board and I have to take it apart to appease them and prove to them that my equipment is working perfectly and they should really just replace a cable at their end, and the next night something in my board cuts out.
So far in the last month I’ve had two stage invasions, once in Bryan, Texas and again in Austin the following night:
In Bryan it was a random twerp who’d left a few bits behind from an open mic night and decided to stride across the stage in the middle of my set to pack up and ship out. I caught him on the stop in Semaphore Signals, grabbed him by his hippie t-shirt, asked him what the fuck he thought he was doing. Whatever it was he won’t be doing it again. I slapped his face - not hard but enough to make the point. I told him he was being disrepectful, pulled his glasses off his face and stuffed them down the front of his shirt. I poked him in the stomach and told him to fuck off. I thought I’d gone too far but it seems he’s universally loathed at the Revolution Cafe and I wasn’t the only one who thought he was being rude and intrusive. People have to learn.
At the Hole In The Wall in Austin a guy took it upon himself to jump on the stage and sing Whole Wide World. He wasn’t doing a bad job but Amy was about to come on and sing it with me so I got out of the way and Mike Fickel (my right-hand man in Texas) escorted him off.
The Austin show was tricky because the sound was fucked-up. Basically the PA wasn’t working properly and the sound engineer was trying to play it cool instead of fixing the problem. It was better at The South Texas Popular Culture Center in San Antonio. Of course there had to be a support act - there always has to be a support act, and it’s usually someone who’s stoked, psyched or just plain honoured to be opening - they always say that, and sometimes they actually are, but mostly they’ve got used to saying it in order to secure the booking. In San Antonio it was an English guy with a band. They were ok - the lead guitarist was great, I’ve met him before, but the rest was just some hokey stuff, nothing that would help put a frame around the picture, which is what I believe an opening act should do.
I loathe and despise most opening acts - they show up late, they don’t know what their line-up is, they say they’re solo and then arrive with a bass player and drummer. You have to move everything out of the way for them and that effectively means you have to set up again in front of the audience once they’ve finished. It never occurs to them that you’re tired and road weary and all the rest of it. And some of them even expect to use your amplifier and you’re supposed to be ok with that - hey man, it’ll save you having to move it out of our way…’
I prefer it when there’s no opening act, like in Memphis at Galloway House. I had to cobble together a PA system out of the junk they had there but it was all ok - the place was a foreclosure, someone bought it and now it’s a work in progress. A great sounding room - a lot of wood. It was like a miniature version of the Ryman and there was a pipe organ at the back of the stage.
I had an opening act at Fond Object in Nashville, a two piece, drums and guitar. They were really good and I didn’t have to move anything to accommodate them so I was really happy. I wish I could remember what they were called. I had a great time in Nashville, I hung out with the engineer and producer Andrija Tokic and his wife Missy. I actually slept in the house where he recorded the first Alabama Shakes album, Boys & Girls, and I spent an afternoon in his studio, the Bomb Shelter.
Amy flew in to Nashville and we booked into an Air B’n’B. I’d never spent a night in TJ Maxx before. Time was when people with rental properties used them as a repository for all the hideous shit that friends and relatives had foisted on them over the years. Now they just donate it all to the Salvation Army in exchange for a tax write-off and buy new hideous shit from Target and TJ Maxx with the proceeds.
The following day we moved to anothe Air B'n'B, a rustic and ramshackle cabin in someone’s back yard and that was much more the sort of thing. We spent the afternoon at The Country Music Hall Of Fame which unlike most other contemporary music museum was actually more than worth the time and the price of admission.
We drove to Atlanta and I dropped Amy at the airport on my way to Columbia, South Carolina. The venue is a new venture called Spaze. My friend Woody Jones who works at Papa Jazz Records organised the event. The opening act decided it would be a really fun idea if they played completely acoustically clustered around an upright piano in another room. I put a stop to that idea, explained to them that their job was to help focus the event. By playing in a different room they would effectively be unfocusing the event. I think they understood, but they may just have been going along because they were frightened of me. They were actually rather good - guitar, banjo, Omnichord and vocal harmonies. They just need to get rid of a man bun or two and buy some shoes.
The opener used to be called a warm-up act. Sadly these days it could often be called the pre-show ego act. I’m appalled by what sometimes passes for an appropriate opening act. A lot of promoters are so concerned with getting people through the door that they lose sight of the evening as a whole. Promoters used to work hard on building a reputation for putting on great events - the billing had to be right, the evening had to have a cohesive feel and not be just a scattering of half hour mini events (or sad non-happenings).
I’ve done too many shows where I’ve had to follow a succession of over-excited and mediocre garage and powerpop bands. Too fast, too loud, with the kind of high-energy hysteria that’s really embarrassing coming from a collection of middle-aged men. No cool, no groove, and no sympathy for the event. And when they’ve finished the audience are tired, bored, deaf, and used to shouting at each other over the din. And then it’s my turn.
At least one of these bands will have contacted me offering their service as a backing band, and on the day the promoter will tell me excitedly how every band in town wanted to open for me. I don’t think it’s every band - the good ones are all out on tour. I just get the ones that are left.
In Tucson I had a local character called Bradford Trojan opening. It would have been perfect if he’d been solo but he came with a band - a bunch of dudes in matching white outfits playing frantic jerk-off powerpop. It was completely out of sync with what I’m doing and I don’t think it did much to enhance the evening as a whole.
The opener in New Orleans was a complete cunt with a whole collection of attitude problems. His strode onto the stage while I was setting up and started moving things out of his way. I introduced myself because plainly he wasn’t going to, and he said, ‘You’re obviously not from around here, you sound intelligent.’
No, fuckface, I’m not from around here, I’ve travelled three thousand fucking miles to do this and perhaps I deserve some respect. I didn’t bother saying this because you can’t tell some people what they don’t want to know, He bored the bar staff and the doorman and didn’t bother sticking around to find out what I do. I devastated the twenty or so people who showed up. Those people won’t forget me but I’ve already forgotten that arsehole’s name.
Half of this reads like a collection of complaints but I’m going to post it anyway because it’ll free me up to write about some of the good, funny and strange things that have gone on between Louisiana and Vancouver where I turned right and effectively started heading home by a circuitous route through the Canadian Rockies.
Only another three thousand miles to go. the last show is in Brooklyn, New York, at the appropriately named Grand Victory. See you there!