Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Few Days In Michigan, Part Three

Today I returned home to my lovely wife Jana and my mostly lovely daughter Molly (I mean, let's be honest - when she's screaming sometimes it ain't always pleasant), but before I boarded the plane, I took one look back through the jetway and knew that I had changed, for I had learned something of incredible value: Sam is the new Greg.

Like Jasmine in Alladin, a whole new world opens up for you when you have a baby. It's like all of a sudden you find yourself really excited to share with anyone you meet that your baby finally had a dirty diaper after a couple days of anxious waiting and that everyone back home is really relieved. It's weird in a lot of ways, but not unpleasant, and I've secretly enjoyed my induction into this secret brotherhood (or fatherhood, as it were) of the baby subculture. I believe that children are our future, and seeing as Molly will soon be doing things like eating solid food and sending text messages, I thought I'd take the opportunity to hang out with Craig's two children a bit, you know, to put my finger on the pulse of the gymboree and see what's the word with the younger set.

And what I learned is that Sam is the new Greg. Greg, as you may or may not know, is a member of one of the highest grossing musical acts in the world ($37 million or so). That's right, folks, he's one of the Wiggles. Well, apparently, he has a terrible condition that has forced him into retirement from the road, but as little Nolan said gravely as he looked me very seriously in the eye, "It's okay....I think Sam can drive the Big Red Car." So don't worry out there, the Wiggles are going to be okay because Nolan said so and Nolan has faith that things like that will work out.

I miss that about childhood - the simple faith that things will just work. As previously stated, I have to forcefully convince myself moments before takeoff that the wings will in fact remain on the plane in the air rather than just trusting that the pilot knows how to fly and the mechanics know how to check the plane for problems. A few years ago, I tutored a young fourth-grade Korean lad (yep, I said "lad") named Ben for a year. Each day, I would go to his home after school, eat some weird food provided from his very non-English speaking grandmother, and I would attempt to teach math, science, and reading to a child who didn't understand a ton of what I was saying. Needless to say, some of our interactions were pretty amazing. And by "amazing", I mean "awkward". Like the time Ben's grandmother didn't know how to ask me what I wanted to drink and decided just to pour me a glass of every liquid in their refrigerator.

Often, Ben would want to openly debate proven facts, mostly because he liked to irritate me, I think. For example, at Ben's school there was a female teacher who was extraordinarily tall for a woman - like 6' 2" or something. Well, Ben would look at me and say things like, "What if she's eighteen feet tall?" to which I would always reply, "But she's not." Unfazed, he would always just lean over a little bit and smile impishly and say, "but what if she is?" And that argument would go back and forth for half an hour or so until it was time for me to take him to tae kwon do practice.

You know, it just now occurred to me that maybe he did that on purpose just to get out of doing the rest of his work. Touche, Ben, wherever you are. Touche.

My point is, with children it seems a line of questioning always works itself towards the inevitable existential statement, "It just is." Will things work out? Of course. How? They just will. Now do you want to go see if any frogs got caught in the pool filter? Kids; you've got to love them.

My time with like-minded folks in Grand Rapids has been refreshing. In our own ways, we'd all like to contribute something to the world that's bigger than ourselves. Something more than just getting all we can for ourselves before we kick the bucket. But despite the years of work some of us have already put in, we still have no better idea of whether this stuff will work or whether it will matter. Ultimately, we're still just kids sitting around telling each other "It just will." I hope so.

I believe in you, Sam. Greg's shoes are going to be hard to fill - it's unprecedented, really - but Nolan believes in you. And frankly, so do I. Plus, Nolan really wanted me to take Molly one of his Wiggles DVDs, which I graciously accepted.

A Few Days in Michigan, Part Two

It's cold here in Grand Rapids. Not too cold, just cold enough to make me wish for a little more body hair. Maybe if I stay here long enough my face will finally sprout something worth not shaving off, and I could finally reach this "manhood" I keep hearing so much about.

I have an aversion to trendiness, so the minute something is deemed "cool" by the masses, I'm instantly adamantly opposed to it. It's another one of those flaws of character that just seem to keep showing up. Maybe that's what Michigan does to you - exposes your flaws like some sort of fairtytale looking glass. In fact, I'm seriously considering supporting an initiative that would officially change Michigan's slogan from "The Great Lakes State" to "The Fairytale Looking Glass State". It just sounds nice, you know?

At any rate, beards have become what goatees where when WCW wrestling was huge, and frankly I want one. Of course, I also don't want one because they're trendy. But in the hierarchy of my own wacked nature, I still really want one, mostly because I can't have one.

Beards do a lot for songwriters. Seriously, take a few moments to think about your favorite songwriters, and think about how many of them have beards. Or even better - think about the judgment you make when you see someone a little on the grizzly side stroll to the microphone. If you're like me, you immediately concede that clearly this person knows about life. I mean, you can't be rugged and not know about life, right? When people see me hit the stage, the looks on their faces suggest they're expecting all songs about comic books for some reason. And frankly, that has to stop.

But longing for facial hair aside, my second day in Grand Rapids has been blast. Fireproof Ministries, Rebuilt Record's parent ministry, is essentially a big umbrella under which a handful of ministries operate.It's been cool to sit down at a table with four other guys who, while very much different, are very much like me. We all could be doing something else with our lives, something that makes for a more stable future, but we all have chosen instead to do something a little ridiculous not knowing if it will turn out well or not. It's a pretty rag-tag group of folks. There's me with Rebuilt, Jamie with To Write Love On Her Arms (a movement seeking to love those who do not love themselves), Clint with Difted (our in-house media firm), our lovable leader Craig of (the #1 Christian porn site... don't worry, it's really a ministry to help those with porn addictions and to demonstrate love to those who are involved in its creation), and Dave the Horn Guy who wears an orange jumpsuit with 25 horns strapped to it. (Quick side note: Dave was recently on the reality show America's Most Talented, which was hosted by Regis and featured none other than David Hasselhoff, thus making me essentially two steps from the 'Hoff himself.)

Jamie started TWLOHA to help share the story of a girl named Rene who cut her arms in an attempt to deal with the pain she felt. It's exploded online, and you can probably throw a rock and hit someone wearing one of the t-shirts. He's been speaking all over the place, and they just finished up a tour called Stop the Bleeding. Clint designed my website and used to play in a band called Subseven. El Clinto just bought a house up here in Grand Rapids and will be moving here from Oklahoma in March. What I love about Clint's story is that they bought a house without ever seeing it. Craig checked it out, and they had pictures, but they mostly just bought a house on the faith that they were supposed to do it. When Jana and I moved back to GA from CA, we did a similar thing in buying a house from a friend's dad, having been to it really only once a year or so before. Opportunities just open up, and you just try to take them.

And then there's Craig, who for a short time in 2001 got me banned from flying on America West airlines. I'll spare the story, but we'll just say that he has an outstanding bet with our friend Jake that he'll cough up $100 if he ever flies them again. Craig and the rest of the x3Church gang have made a habit out of pissing people off, though it's weird to say the folks that have gotten the most upset are Christians and not the people at porn shows who are walking by their booth and the stacks of free Bibles. Then again, Craig does drive a car with "The #1 Christian Porn Site" wrapped on the side of it, so I can understand why that might put some folks off from time to time. But I love the heart of it, and I do get a little guilty pleasure out of making people uncomfortable (yet another flaw of character), so that helps.

We've never all sat down together, our little Fireproof family, and it's been a much needed time of refreshment for my spirit. Of course, after we ate dinner tonight we all went and saw Blood Diamondsand felt like crap after we left the theater. If you're in that holiday mood and you'd like to stay that way, you might want to skip that one. That's just my opinion, though.

And while today was fun, I still can't help but notice that out of all of us, I'm the only one not capable of growing even a junior high-grade mustache. But I have become the fella's go-to guy on all comic-book related queries, and I've got to chalk that one up as progress.

A Few Days in Michigan, Part One

For whatever reason, I tend to get more excited about blogging when I'm traveling. I suppose I could point to the fact that the seeing and telling of things while moving around is inherently exciting, but that seems kind of odd given the fact that what I'm usually seeing is the world through a dirty car or airplane window and what I'm telling is a grand story about wanting a number one combo with a Coke. And I'm even talking to that guy through a tiny box in what is essentially a driveway. But I'm digressing.

The point is I'm in Michigan for a few days at what I can only describe as a Fireproof Ministries "summit", and that inspires me to write.

This seems as good a time as any to discuss my feelings towards flying, which lie somewhere below my disdain for American Idol but still slightly above O.J. Simpson. I mean, seriously, how has the ground not opened up and swallowed that sad sack of crap? But there I go digressing again. Flying is to me the riskiest thing I do on a semi-regular basis. I'm essentially strapping myself to a Campbell's soup can flown by someone I may only lay eyes on once as I exit the plane as quickly as possible, thankful to be back in contact with the ground. In what other area of life do I put my mortal well-being in the hands of a complete stranger wearing such a ridiculous looking hat?

Okay, I've just been staring at my computer screen for a few minutes trying to think up some cool analogy for that, but I can't, and I keep thinking of all the times I actually do put my very life in the hands of someone I don't even know: surgery, the voting booth, ordering the number 6 combo at Taco Stand, etc. But you've got to admit that most pilot's suits look a little outdated. If Delta won't give pilots a raise while making them fly 80 hours straight, at least they could come off the hip for some Armani threads. Still digressing.

Utlimately, the uncertainty of being lead into the great blue yonder by a completely anonymous stranger is not what bothers me about flying; it's the finality. ALL flights come to an end, and we'll all end up on the ground. I've seen in myself at times an unpleasant flaw of character in that I put things off because I don't like them to be over. Final chapters of books I really like stay unread because I don't want the story to end. Artwork waiting for a finishing touch. Songs in limbo on a hard drive somewhere that are yet to be completed. I hate when things are over because I hate the transition from present to past. I can access the present, but the past exists only in memory. And though it's a bit morbid, my family has a history of Alzheimer's, so I'm hesitant to put stuff there, too.

But maybe there's a little more to it, and if I'm being honest (and by golly, I'm giving it a shot), I hate when things are over because that's when judgments are cast. Artists always joke about a piece never really being over; you could conceivably tinker with something for eternity. And that's the problem. If we never finish, we can always use that as an excuse to without making a judgment about that same something's worth. If I post a demo of a new song (coming soon, I swear!), there's an understanding as a listener that you can't make a hard decision on whether you like it or not because it's not really in its fully realized form. And I remain safe from having to decide in my own soul whether I'm a big enough boy to take some criticism. And the criticism I fear the most comes right from my own soul.

Are you willing to take a risk? That's the question I constantly ask myself. Putting your work (and in art, yourself) out there is a risk that can leave you burned. Pinkerton forever ruined my favorite band of all time because Rivers Cuomo wrote some personal songs and it bombed commercially and critically (at least at the time). And I really liked the album. I've always said I wanted to put out honest music; the new songs reflect this, though I'm a bit pained to say that in places it's not pretty. But that's a story for later. For now, I've been willing to get over my wussiness at least for the couple of hours I spent thousands of feet about the eastern United States, and the point, it seems, is that I need to be willing to embrace the many "ends" that I will see in my life. Because after all, just like every plane flight I take, the end is inevitable.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Upcoming Shows and some new recording...

If you're in the Atlanta/Athens, Georgia areas in June, I've got some great shows with some even greater artists. Yes, it's true. On Thursday, June 1st, I'm at the renowned Eddie's Attic with incredible duo Ellery and my good friend Jon Black. Then a couple of days later, I'm back at Eddie's on the 3rd competing in their Semi-Annual Open Mic Shoot-Out. This is a fairly big deal, and it's always sold out, so it should be a great time. This will be my second time in the "big show", and I'd love some support. I mean, heck, you'll see some of the Southeast's best songwriting talent out there, for crying out loud...

And then on June 7th, I'll be here in Athens at the Flicker Theatre (21 only), with the very amazing Kristin Cifelli from Boston, Mass, and her good friend Liz Stahler. We're very fortunate to have them swing through our little town, and if you can't make it out to the show on the 7th, you should definitely catch them on the date closest to you.

Like just about everyone in America these days, you can find all these wonderful artists on Myspace. And you should do just that.

I'm also heading into the studio with my good friend Micah Dalton to record some songs for what will hopefully become the next Jason Harwell record. The process of writing has been a lot different this time, and I'm hoping and praying we come out with something worth listening to. I'll keep you posted.

Until then, be good, kids -

- j

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The End of the Road...

After a long drive from Texas, Jon and I stop in for a night in Port St. Joe, Florida to see my friend Deb and to play for some of her homies. It was good to feel the warm Florida air (especially since it wasn't blazing hot yet), and to know that we were at least closer to home having arrived back in the Eastern Time Zone. Well, depending on where you stood - the town was pretty close to the line, a situation I imagine local teenagers try to exploit concerning their curfews.

That night we make it as far north as Columbus, GA to crash on my inlaws' floor. We have to have the van back to the rental company by 1pm before heading over to WUGA's studio at the Continuing Ed Center here in Athens so that Jon could be featured on Robb Holmes' "It's Friday" program. If you're an Athens musician - and you can get by with a stripped-down acoustic performance - "It's Friday" should be on your list of things to do. Robb is a great host, a fun guy to talk to, and your Mom will proud of you.

I'll be honest - at this point, I'm pretty tired. We've been on the road for a couple of weeks or so, mostly breaking even, and playing some good (but not great) shows in a few states, and frankly, I'm ready to sit on my couch and be lazy for a while. I'm pretty sure that by now it will be hard to find my house, or at least see it from the street, thanks to the incredible mutant-like growth of the weeds that dominate my front yard. But I'm ready to try and find that home, and I've sharpened my machete.

Jon finishes up, it's a great show on-air, and we split up to go find our wives. Sleeping in the van with Jon has been okay, but let's face it - there's no real comparison. She's worth hacking my way through my front lawn/jungle to find.

Saturday night Jon plays at Hot Corner, which is a favorite venue of mine in town. Yeah, you have to set up your own PA and there's no cover so you're living off "tips" and merch sales (I say "tips" because I've never actually seen anyone leave any), but I love that room. And playing with your back to the window that faces Washington St. is wonderfully random. Tonight, David Owen comes up from Augusta to share the stage with Jon, and the room is out of places to sit comfortably. It's nice to see a bunch of familiar faces after our trip, and the show is better simply because it's better to be home.

Later, I look to see the overall damage done to our bank account from the soaring gas prices and other road expenses. After tallying up the expenses and counting the sales, I'm surprised to see that we actually finished up in the black, if only by a little.

Was it a good trip? Heck, I don't know. It all depends on what rubric you use to grade such things. Is it worth doing again? I guess my answer right now is a firm "probably".

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Waco, baby!

Common Grounds, Waco,TX

We bid goodbye to Dallas and make the hour and a half drive south to Waco, the home of Baylor University and Common Grounds, a cool, artsy coffeehouse right off campus. Halfway there, the bottom drops out of some monster storm cloud, and Jon and I can hardly hear each other yelling over the hail beating down on the van. I guess that's why you're supposed to pick up the insurance on those things. My mind instantly flashes to all the warnings I'm constantly receiving from my family about watching for tornadoes and stuff, and for a good twelve minutes I'm fairly convinced I'm going to die. Over-dramatic? Probably. But for crying out loud, it's raining buckets of ice on this stupid van, and that's just not normal. The hail stops, I unfold from the fetal position, and we continue on, more determined than ever now to reach our destination. And rock it acoustically.

Arriving at Common Grounds, I realize that if I've been given any innate gift or superpower, I think that it might be bad timing. I'm beginning to think that I couldn't plan my way out of wet paper sack, and that only becomes clearer when we realize it's final exam time at Baylor. Sure, there's a house full of folks, but most of them have their ear buds in and are completely engrossed in writing those last minute papers I remember so well. So oh well...

It's like the opposite of White Rock - instead of having a handful of people who were completely into what we were doing, tonight we'll play to a house full of folks who are completely tuned out. These are definitely the times when I feel like playing music is the equivalent of talking to someone's ear off on a plane flight, when all they want is to read their book or enjoy the silence or order something from the Skymall catalog. I can't blame them - they came to the shop not to here music but to study or whatever. I hate it when I'm on their end, trying to finish whatever it is I need to do, and I keep getting interrupted, so it's always weird. I don't really feel that everyone in the world has to care about my music, and I don't really like smacking people over the head with it.

But hey, this is what I do, and these folks are free to leave and go study at an actual library or something, so here we go. Christie, a friend of mine, came out to do some classwork and here me play for a while. It's great to see a familiar face, and as always, I try to remember to make it worth that one person's while. It's a good show, and we sell some CDs, make a few bucks from the house, find a few new friends, and down some free coffee before we head towards Houston. I really like Common Grounds - it's nice to play those rare coffeehouses that actually work as acoustic venues. Thanks, folks!

We've got a driving day ahead on our way to Florida, and we decide to get a head start on the drive. Houston's only a few hours away, and we're going to be sleeping in the van anyway, so why not? Not long into the drive, we catch up to that big storm, and the lightning was such that it almost looked like a strobe light going off in the sky. It was literally hard to see where we were going. Our progress slows to a crawl, because as always, we strive to put safety first. We'll arrive alive, dang it! At about four a.m. we reach a rest stop right outside Beaumont on the Louisiana border, and I carve out enough space between our gear in the back to put my sleeping bag down for a few hours. Tomorrow is all about driving; tonight is all about the sound of rain on the van's roof.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jason does Dallas, Part Two

After a day of freeloading on Tony's couches and destroying Tennessee in the SEC Championship game (my quarterback won the Heisman afterwards), Jon and I once again load the van for the short drive down US 75 to White Rock Coffee, this evening's venue. We're not expecting a big turnout - heck, it's Monday - but we're not really out anything, either. I like to think this is really a win-win. Right.

It's been good to have a day to catch up and do nothing. After the midnight drive to Garden City and the long haul to Dallas the next day, we were pretty van-weary. And seeing as we've got a Texas to Florida drive ahead, we're doing our best to enjoy the luxury of sleeping on a couch.

But tonight we will enjoy some coffee while rocking it as much two songwriters can, dang it. We arrive at White Rock and set up our gear, check our email again on the free wi-fi, and pray for anyone to show up. Tony and Harvey come in from class, and another couple wanders in as I'm into my second song of the set. Yep, this one's not exactly going to be a "capacity" crowd. But it's really who you are when there's three people in the crowd that can really say the most about you as an artist . I mean, everyone's a rock star when there's a crowd of people who came to see you play - there's tons of energy to feed from. But what do you do long before you reach that - will you consistently give it like those three people are the most important people in your career? Now, of course I'd rather have the former, but I'm still earning that. So tonight it's all about the latter.

I come to find out that the couple who came in actually came to see me. This is always a surprise - I tend to feel that I actually know most of my "fans" (heck, I'm related to half of them) - so it's a pleasant surprise to hear them request a song. The good fellow Dustin is from California, and apparently he heard some of my stuff on XM radio while he was living out there. He said he had been checking my website to see when I would be coming through the area. Now THAT'S a first for me.

It would have been easy to dismiss the show, and it's incredibly hard to do your best when you feel like no one cares. I'm glad that on this night, I won the battle - to find out those couple of people actually came to see me play... I'm glad I didn't waste their time. Dustin and Erin (apologies if I spelled it wrong), it was great to meet you both - I hope things continue to go well for you in Dallas.

Later on, Tony and I talked about how we define success, and how our versions of success can differ. I'd say the show was successful; I sold CDs to just about everyone in attendance, I sounded decent, and I had a good time. Of course, I could just as easily chalk it up to being a failure - I played to six people in a coffeehouse on a Monday night and have only $25 to show for it. Maybe it's like that old "glass half full/half empty" trick of perception. Sometimes it's hard to tell. My deal-breaker is always whether I feel that the time I spent actually mattered. Tonight, I'd say it did - I didn't change anyone's world (I've never done that) - but I feel like I contributed at least a little something. On a random Monday. In a coffeeshop in Dallas.

We've got one more night of freeloading at Tony's before we hit the road for Waco and turn the van towards home. It's been time well spent here in Dallas; I'll be honest though - I wouldn't mind seeing a little of that financial success for the next few shows...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Jason does Dallas, Part One

The Door, Dallas, TX

Google Maps says it will take us 10 hours to get to Dallas from Garden City. We find this helpful. We plan accordingly, and leave Garden City well before the sun hits the horizon. Google Maps must be designed for people who are allergic to the speed limit, and in only eight hours we cruise into the Big D. I promise we didn't speed. Our destination? The Door, a rock club down in the Deep Ellum arts district downtown. This is my first trip to the actual city of Dallas (excluding the airport), and was pleasantly surprised to see the "Little Five Points - like" district there. Since we've still got a few hours until load-in, we track down some free wi-fi at Panera.

One can only check one's email so many times before staring at your computer screen is just stupid. So I leave Jon in Panera and trek out to the van to see if the Vaughn College Future Farmers could beat up on Arizona State. I thank God for the invention of the Playstation - there is no better way to waste time. What's that? You have fourteen hours to kill? Yeah, no problem. This game is being played in the snow, so the score is limited to 63-0, but hey, a win's a win, you know?

With time sufficiently killed, we head over to The Door to load in and soundcheck. There's a couple of other shows going on at the venue that night, and it's not hard to feel a little out of place there, especially having come from Garden City. It's tempting to go ahead and make your mind up that this show is probably going to suck, but I'm holding of on that just yet. You never know, right?

Being the first time we've played Dallas, we're not expecting a tremendous turnout. Sure, we invited everyone in our friends list on Myspace, but seeing as those folks are only somewhat kind of my friends, I don't really expect to see them. Don't get me wrong, I just think there's no real attachment. I mean, how hard is it to click a few links on a website? There's no real personal involvement needed, and as such, there's really no emotional investment. But we still hope that maybe some will be curious enough to come out and hear some music.

Jon and I are in the middle two slots, and the girl who's before me shows up late. This will be a theme. She then proceeds to play thirteen minutes into my set, at which point I actually walk up to the stage and begin getting my guitar out and tuning up. She looks over and asks me in a very "it's cute to be stupid" tone, "How much longer can I play?", to which I responded, "Yeah, you're already thirteen minutes into my set". To which she replies, "Can I play one more?" to which I feel obligated to say,"Okay". Being a jerk is not easy for me, so of course I let her play one more of her really bad songs. The "cute-to-be-stupid" schtick is also really annoying, but we've all got our things. I just couldn't believe how blatant she was about just waiting for someone to tell her to stop playing - I'm pretty sure if I hadn't said anything we'd still be there right now. Being musicians, there can be a tendency to really to want to look at other musicians as competitors; I think that's a lame way to do it. That's not the way to go through life, always looking over your shoulder, comparing yourself to others, picking them apart to make yourself feel better - it's just no good. I usually don't get mad - she really pissed me off, though, I'll admit. Nothing about her seemed like she genuinely was not aware of how long she played. But now it was my turn to play, and I'd driven a long way to do that, and I was going to play to whoever showed up. You just have to let stuff go, I think.

I noticed a couple of folks who really seemed to like the show. Later, I met them, and they actually found my music on Myspace. So there you go - my theory is flawed. Amanda and Alex - thanks so much for hanging out and listening - I hope you're enjoying the CDs. You guys made my night. Despite the short set, I had a blast playing some songs, and I felt that I played them pretty well. The crowd seemed to be with me, and I sold enough product to make it to cover the gas it took us to get there. I feel like we made some new friends, so all in all - a good show. We're hanging out in Dallas for a couple of days before driving for Florida - it's been a long day, so I'm looking forward to crashing on Tony's couch for the night.

Garden City, Part 2

Arriving in Garden City, I was terribly disappointed to see that the streets were not paved of gold, but they were nicely bricked in some places, and that seemed a good compromise. Yep, Garden City suited me just fine. Jon and I had essentially booked a tour last September so we could play our way out there. After all, no one had ever complimented my music like Mary had, and it seemed the least I could do. Plus, driving 19 hours to play a free show at a public radio station seemed incredibly ridiculous and therefore mandatory. It was a good trip, and Mary said we could come backw when Jon's album was done.

Which leads us to the reason why I'm pummeling Auburn in the back seat of the van at 4:32 in the morning. The score has now rocketed to 102-0, and now that I've reached the century mark, I can begin to relax, safe in the knowledge that the game is well in hand. We've still got a while to go yet, and soon enough it's my turn to drive. We pull into the station at about 5:30 am and catch a nap in the van.

I'm awakened to find workers looking at me through the van window, and after that shock runs through my body, I'm not going back to sleep. It's finally daylight, and I figure someone's probably up and at 'em at the station, so I stick my head in the door to see what's going on. Pam has just made a fresh pot of coffee. She apologizes for making it too strong. I hug her. We've never met.

Pouring my coffee, I run into Mary and she gives me a great hug. We chat in the studio during the song breaks, and after catching up for a bit, I go wake Jon up from his coma in the van so that we can perform on "High Plains Morning". We do a half-asleep interview, stumble through some songs, and somehow find our way to the Holiday Inn Express. I'm excited about that because those people in the commercials always seem to do extraordinary things when they stay at one of those places. We think the interview went well, but neither one of us can remember.

At 3pm, Mary gives us a call, and not long after, Jon and I are touring the local zoo with Mary and her two children. That's right, there's a free zoo. With a rhino, some giraffes, elephants, lions, tiger, bears... oh my. Not to mention the monkeys, otters, and snow leopards. Apparently they used to have a couple of polar bears (I'm not sure what happened there, but Mary mentioned that as a senior prank, the graduates managed to dye them purple).

A little Chinese buffet and conversation later, Jon and I performed at the HPPR studios as part of their running "Living Room Concert Series". Whereas Columbia felt like a fight to be heard by anyone at all, the Living Room series is more like, well, a living room. Comfortable. Unassuming. Disarming. I personally have no real care for all the "show" in music. Don't get me wrong - I'm all for going for it with a performance - but it seems that most of what constitutes "rocking" these days really comes down to some stupid choreographed jumps, poses, and those cute little moves where the guitar player slings his guitar all the way his body and then catches it... all the while continuing to rock. Yeah, I think that's all crap, but that's purely my opinion. Feel free to disagree. At any rate, personally, I don't hold myself up as an artist to be any different than anyone else, and I've always had a hard time dealing with "the stage" - that marked separation between the artist and the audience. It seems like the music that really forms our American pedigree was born more on friends' back porches and basements - the blues, jazz (and everything that came from there... so pretty much everything) - these are art forms built on an authentic connection between the audience and the artist. That's what I dig about music - it still can be that. It doesn't all have to be an advertisement for some kind of lifestyle or cell phone company. To play for even just a few people who have no idea who you are - but who have a genuine interest in the music you have to offer - that's something to hold on to.

Plus, they had snacks, including some fancy strawberry shortcake and vanilla nut coffee. All in all, it's a good time, and Mary bids us goodbye after a hug and some kind words. We head back to the hotel for a few hours worth of sleep before we get up and make the big drive to Dallas the next morning. Tomorrow we'll make the turn east and begin our trek home. Jon and I do Dallas, baby, yeah!!

Garden City, Part 1

Garden City, KS - High Plains Public Radio

Rejuvenated by our show in Lawrence, Jon and I celebrate by getting back in the van and driving through the night to get to Garden City. I'm honestly pretty excited about it. At this point, Jon is less excited than I am because he's the one driving. I'm the one in the back seat of the van whooping the snot out of the Auburn Tigers on my Playstation. Maybe I created my own school on NCAA 05. Maybe I made the players all Romanowski-style steroid freaks who seek to permanently embarrass their opponents. Maybe my team is undefeated for third season in a row and aiming for yet another National Championship. Maybe I don't feel bad for ruining these players lives because they're not real people. Right now, maybe I'm winning 84-0.

Pummeling Auburn is a good thing to do at four in the morning in the back of a van in the middle of the dark abyss that is nighttime rural Kansas. Actually, pummeling Auburn anytime is fun to do, but that's neither here nor there. Garden City is located in the southwest corner of the State, not terribly far from Oklahoma, Texas, or Colorado but a heck of a long way from Athens.

For most people, Garden City may not be a prime vacation destination. There are no major highways to speak of that will quickly carry you to or from there, no big theme parks, and no one (at least no one I saw) wearing a club La Villa shirt. Most people probably don't ever make it to Garden City, and frankly that makes me sad, for Garden City, Kansas is a neat little town. I'll admit, I'm a little biased because Garden City is the home of High Plains Public Radio and Mary Palmer, the Program Director/morning show host who first invited me out to perform at her station.

It's a long, boring story, so I'll refrain from telling it, but over the course of the last few years, I recorded an album which won an international songwriting competition which won me a music promotion package which included sending my album to 150 stations across the country, one of which was HPPR which was received by one Mary Palmer.

I submitted those 150 CDs to the promoter with a great bit of trepidation, knowing in my heart that most of them would end up in the garbage, some dusty forgotten bin, or worse - as coasters or frisbees. It's ridiculous, but that's my work, and though I don't care if people don't find is nearly as fascinating as I do, I don't want to think that someone just discards a copy like a used Kleenex. So you can understand that when I received an email out of the blue from Mary - one in which she complimented not only the music but the packaging and liner notes, no less - I was pretty excited. She handed me out an invitation to play in studio if I was ever in town, so I quickly got out my Atlas to see how I could fit it in to a routing. It was then that I discovered the horrible truth that Garden City was not close to anything except Dodge City, and all I knew of it was that people were always trying to "get the hell out of there". That's not exactly a "tourist friendly" slogan, you know.

But as I thought about it, maybe people were always leaving Dodge because Garden City was so great. Maybe Garden City was the "Jewel of the Breadbasket" or El Dorado or something. Maybe it was so great that the no one wanted the word to get out, you know, so it could be exclusive. In a way, Mary's invitation was like getting to go behind the velvet rope at the 40/40 Club. I was getting called up, going to the big show. This was incredible. I was going to Garden City.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Lawrence of Mid-America

Lawrence, KS - April 20th, 2006

After last night's "show" in Columbia, we press westwardly on towards the very Athens-like Lawrence, KS. I dig Lawrence, and it's always been good to us. Plus, if you find yourself in Middle America, it's good to stop in a place that feels a lot like home, only flatter.

Rolling into town a little early to get some work done, we find some free internet at that night's venue, Signs of Life, a really vibey art gallery/performance space and bookstore. All in all, we're feeling pretty good - it's a new day, Columbia disappeared in the rearview, and heck, even the sun is out. All I need now is some Dunkin' Donuts coffee (I'm convinced they put crack in their sugar/cream mix) to take the day to 11, and I'm set. And despite their "storefinder" on their website saying there was one on W. 23rd, we couldn't find it. I think that maybe it's one of those "ultra-secret" Dunkin' Donuts speakeasies that I've been hearing so much about; you know, the kind where you have to know someone who knows someone who might be able to get you in. I'm cool with this; coffee this good ought to be exclusive.

But a day that good would just be too much for this skinny white soul to handle, and so it goes that I'm content to chill at Signs of Life and check my email. Jon and I browse through their selection of books, and there's definitely some stuff I'd like to take home with me, but I figure it's probably better to save money than spend it at this point, so looking is all I'll do this day. As we're wandering through the shelves upon shelves of books, one of the employees kindly asks us if we need some help. "No thanks," we say, "we're just browsing", and he replies with, "Sure, no problem. What are you guys up to?". Jon tells him that we're musicians from out of town and that we're actually playing there later on in that night. As the words are coming out of Jon's mouth, I can see that the kind employee is beginning to squint his eyes a bit, a clear indication that he is searching through his mind's internal Daytimer, trying to remember this "show" we keep talking about. His hard drive search returns nothing. He asks us if we're with the Renaissance folks. Jon and I look at each other, wondering what in the heck this guy is talking about. Sensing our confusion, Kind Employee tells us about a Kansas University music professor and the Renaissance music and lecture that he's conducting later on. He says we must be playing somewhere else. We kind of nod in a confused agreement, and we bid him good day.

I can feel the panic beginning to grow within like one of those rubber crocodile things you used to put in a glass of water when you were little. The ones that would quadruple in size. The ones that looked like some weird science experiment or prop from Dr. Who. Those things were always a little creepy to me, and I'm feeling the same way now as I stand in the Local Author section of this place in which I may or may not be playing later. I mean, seriously, what is the deal? This is most definitely not the right way to tour - to show up every day and hope you actually have a show.

After making a few phone calls, the confusion is cleared up - we're good to go, right after the Renaissance concert and lecture. I would later attend the lecture - it was nice.

Playing in bookstores is always fun to me for some reason. Maybe it's because I think it's funny to play a set while people are shopping. Or the joy of the "shout-outs" to the people in the Self Help section. Whatever it is, I always feel a little looser, a little free. The show was good - some folks came out, we sold some product, and in the light of last night's show in Columbia, it looked even better. Some Dunkin' Donuts coffee would have made it slightly better, but like I said, that would be too much goodness to handle.

It's no Athens, but I'll take Lawrence just fine. We've got to be in Garden City early tomorrow morning on HPPR, an NPR station that affiliates to 19 stations in 4 states, so we load the van and get a start on that 7 hr. drive. Thanks to everyone who came out to the show - especially you, Casey, for making us feel at home a long way from GA.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Show in the "Show-Me" State?

We've reached the end of Day Two for Jon Black and myself as we attempt to break even while playing our way through Missouri, Kansas, Texas, and Florida before heading back home to my beloved home of Athens. Tonight's stop was in Columbia, MO, the home of the university commonly known as "Mizzou" and The Blue Fugue, a bar that welcomed us this evening.

Now when I say "welcomed", I mean we basically had to show up at the venue to make sure we even had a slot on the bill. I like to think I'm one who will generally give folks the benefit of the doubt, so in the two weeks of "nill-communication" prior to our little pop-in, I preferred to think that maybe the phone lines were down... as were all available internet connections, email servers, etc. Since our last transmission, we only knew that we had responded to them with a positive "yes, Jon and I can split a set" and had received only a "Yeah, that sounds good... remind me who you are and what night you were looking for before that slot gets booked." There was an emoticon at the end of that last email, but in all honesty, I've never really had the desire to learn cute ways to spell stuff with my computer keys. Well, other than words, that is. Perhaps it has to do with my strict upbringing and the deep-seeded guilt I still feel the first time I spelled "hell" on my calculator in seventh grade. But I digress...

More to the matter at hand, Jon and I decided to stop in on the hopes that we would have a stage that night, at least for a few songs. I'm certainly no professional at this touring thing, but I've been doing this long enough to know that if something's not officially "confirmed", then odds are your skinny white self ain't playing. It is a strange catch-22, and I pondered the mysteries of the universe as I drove west on I-70 through St. Louis, realizing, of course, that I was doomed.

If we showed up, I imagined that we would walk in and the guy would laugh in our faces, blow his hot breath on me in particular, and tell us something about the music business, the importance of confirming things, and the fragility of modern communication apparatus like email servers. For some reason, when I imagined him, he was wearing a Heart t-shirt. Not a heart shape - the band Heart. And as his thug friend Tone (pronounced "Tony") threw us out, he took a gulp of his draft beer and yelled, "Awww...Barracuda!"

Of course, if we didn't show up, I knew that he would somehow find a way to fix his ailing communication problems, at least enough to send me an angry email for not showing up. He would then lecture me via the internet concerning the music business, the importance of confirming things, and the fragility of "ever playing this town again".

Either way, I felt we were screwed.

Nevertheless, we showed up, and after a brief moment of awkward conversation (the likes of which I'd rather not try to transcribe), we walked out in the knowledge that we were one of eight acts on the bill that night. Yep, the chances of making some money that night were looking pretty dim. But you know, in dim places I've found it's best to shine your little light, and so Jon and I made a vow right then and there that we would play the best six songs of our lives. And we tried.

And it was okay. Not great by any means, but serviceable, and as we ended our set, we exited the stage, found a seat in the back of the club, and began to wait for the end of the night when we see what kind of split of the door we'd get. We hoped for at least enough to put gas in the van (and after "that guy" showed up to request "some Skynyrd!!!" we felt we'd earned it) so we could avoid selling our bodies for cash somewhere along the three-hour drive between Columbia and Lawrence, KS. Nobody wanted that.

By now, the next band had mounted the stage, with the lead singer proudly proclaiming to the growing crowd, "Yeeaaahh!!! Now we got some f'in drums up here!!!" Clearly, this guy came to rock. Unfortunately, the rest of the band was not yet ready for the rocking, and for the next ten minutes or so, they soundchecked, slowly working their way into rock-readiness.

They were an interesting band. Panning from right to left, they were a fearsome foursome; the bass player was adjusting his stance, finding the optimal body position to "rock steady". Later, he would do just that. Next to him was the drummer, clad in a wife-beater and jeans and close-cut hair. Inexplicably, he had let someone draw "tattoos" on his arms with a Sharpie, and just as inexplicably, someone had given him a vocal mic. Later, this would become a problem. Continuing on, the guy next to him was not a guy at all but a music stand raised to its highest height. A funny face had been drawn with a Sharpie (the same one, I suspect) on wife-beater #2, which had then been stretched over the stand to make a face. I'm not sure what that was about.

Clad in a black button-down and white tie, the lead guitar player must have come from a Hives tribute band audition. Or maybe not. But he definitely had eye makeup on, a decision which prompted one of those "Maybe it's Maybelline" commercials to play in my mind every time he said something stupid. This would happen many times in the next hour. Rounding out the band, we're convinced, was Nathan Lane. Soon, we would find out he was not, in fact, Nathan Lane, but Nathan Lane "turned to 11". Did you just picture him with a Steve Vail model Ibanez? You should have.

With the soundcheck over, the band launches into its set. The guys were young, and they had drawn a great crowd of classmates and friends, the kind of friends who'll support you for anything. The kind who won't tell you how much you suck. I'm definitely glad I had those friends, and because I thought in my mind I was okay, I continued to play and learn, to the point where I don't usually embarrass myself on stage. Generally speaking, of course. The guys were pretty good at their brand of riff-rock, at least musically, and I'm sure that if they continue working they'll get better. Maybe then Maybelline won't feel the need to fish for street cred by dropping the F-bomb two or three times between each set.

They're covering "Wonderwall" now, and the crowd's definitely put their "beer-phones" on. I mean, it might as well be Liam up there not believing that anyone feels the way he does about you now. It's a good time for it - they had rocked us all for two or three songs straight, and I for one needed a breather. And after all, he's my wonderwall. By now, they should have somehow realized what they're not to do, but it becomes clear that the rock has clouded their vision. Slightly confused in the aftermath of the overwhelming response to their rockilicious cover, a leader is needed to steer the ship into uncharted rockdoms afar. Fortunately, Nathan Lane steps up to the mic and plays what can only be described as Primus' "Wynonna's Big Brown Beaver" played on a 331/2 at 45 speed. He keeps saying something about "licking his crack muthaf---r!", and the crowd begins to feel sick. Luckily, the lead singer springs out of his rock coma and rights the ship with another cover. Well played, sir. Just like James said, "gotta give 'em what they want - uhhh! - gotta give 'em what they need!", and they love some other folks' music. This time it's "Creep" by Radiohead, and Maybelline takes the mic off the stand and with his other hand makes singing gestures. Suddenly, Jon, my friend Rachel, and I become Simon, Randy, and Paula at those early-season American Idol auditions. Maybelline is officially crooning. In falsetto.

At this point, the set is almost over. The drummer continues to say dumb things on his mic between songs, and the rest of the band continues to cringe each time. Except Nathan Lane, of course - he likes it awkward. And what could it be for the big finish? A song about the lead singer's room. Not some allegory or thinly-disguised song of innuendo - no - this was a song about his room. His television, his Lord of the Rings poster, his Dalmations picture, and his dreamcatcher. And... scene!

The band then drank like tomorrow would never come through the next four bands' sets, and they earned it. I kid because it was pretty unterrific, but hey, they played to a crowd and I didn't. So the last laugh is always their's. And more power to them. Music is a funny business, and it's important not to take yourself seriously, though it's not always easy to laugh at 2 in the morning, having finally left the bar with $40 in your pocket to get you to the next show. Such was our adventure through Columbia, where we thought we wouldn't have a show but did, at the last minute. We crashed at Rachel's place, hoping that our next show would be much better.

It's got to go somewhere, right?

I've been trying really hard in this election season to remember the things the internet has taught us: 1. Don't read the comments...