Tour Diary: District of Columbiad (or the History of Wussy in our Nation’s Capital)

washington-national-cathedral-Copy

When you’re a small band who doesn’t make their living touring, doesn’t fly to shows, have a driver who can drive over night, or in other words if you’re like the vast majority of bands who tour, then some cities or even regions will get short shrift.* For instance, look at the southern United States. (just don’t look too close at our women, guns, flags, cholesterol, and investment in public education) For us however, we have no radio station pushing us down there, no media center that we can hopefully get some press out of, and with it being so far away we can only play the region once every few years. It’s hard to build a following that way. Now look at the Pacific Northwest, which is even further away. KEXP has been playing us since the beginning, so by the time we got there, holy shit there’s people who know the music and want to see us. The more prosaic reality is where you can reach a city within a reasonable amount of time, play there a million times and hope word of mouth with the occasional media mention will result in a fan base. You just grind it out. Sometimes though a city just isn’t into you. (And then Samantha chides, “Carrie, how many times are you going to keep going there? Where’s your pride my fine young mare? It’s time to let the dream go, stand tall, stick your bosoms out, and only make the occasional booty call if the routing really makes sense.”) There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do OK in Pittsburgh. It’s just been like a series of weird first dates every time we play there. Is it them? Is it us? Washington D.C. has been like that too.

  • Shrift is a pleasant word to say. So much so I think it should be used to describe something like the rippling movement a summer dress makes while a woman is walking. Instead it means the absolution or remission of sins by a priest. Which is good too. Not as good as mine but still good. The phrase short shrift was first written down unsurprisingly by Shakespeare, and originally was used when criminals were sent straight from sentencing to the gallows and thus only allowed to receive a quick shrift.

 The First Time

The first time we played D.C. was actually in Arlington, at a tiny place called the Galaxy Hut. This was in the Dawn era and I had fucked up. It was one of those years where Easter fell super early and to be honest I had no idea it moved around at all. I still had small children at the time and Easter was a big deal. Easter hunts, (we have a tradition going way back that whoever finds the egg with Mike written on it wins the Mike Hunt) family, rolls rising symbolically and then crossed with hot white frosting dripping down the sides. And here I had OK’d the band being away from town that weekend. But before all that we had a show to play Easter Eve.

The stage at the Galaxy Hut was a rectangle painted on the floor, no larger than a tract housing walk-in closet. The club could fit around 50 people and it was packed. Not for us, but the other band had someone from Dismemberment Plan in it and people were psyched to see that. We were arranged like a police line-up in our painted corner: Dawn, Chuck, Lisa then me. I still brought the keyboard then so it was tight. Not a bad show, but when we tried to book a show there later on they had decided not to pay some sort of license fee and bands could not play original music there, only covers. Don’t ask me.

Anyway, we were staying at a friend’s place in Arlington, us still at the sleeping on floors stage of things. The next morning was Easter, and wracked with guilt I decided I needed a pilgrimage of some sort to accomplish what I don’t know. Arlington Cemetery seemed promising but the only thing going on there was a sunrise service and fuck that. So the next obvious spiritual icon would have to be the National Cathedral. Those Episcopalians sure build a nice church. I took the Metro to DuPont Circle, which was as close as it got to the church. I came up out of the hole into a perfect robin’s egg blue spring morning, and also into a fancy-pants farmer’s market. Children in strollers being pushed by impossibly white-toothed parents in earth tones and soft jeans laughing and leaning into each other as they picked out the perfect bunch of organic arugula and artisanal cheese to numb the nascent disquiet that would eventually lead him to unplug the nanny-cam and her to drink at noon. It was lovely and made me feel better. I got a fresh chocolate croissant and an organic indigenous butt-cheek squeezed apple cider, watched the automatons cheerily pretending that the tech bubble wasn’t about to burst, and then began looking for the bus stop that would take me toot sweet to the Cathedral. I can’t remember what it’s called but the bus stop was on the road known as embassy row. I waited and waited becoming increasingly certain that the busses must not run even the minimal holiday schedule on Easter. I gave myself an hour before I’d start walking, an interval my increasingly crazed mind had designated as being the longest anyone would make someone wait at a bus stop on a non-blizzard non-rush hour day. (I hate waiting. I don’t do it well. Hell is amusement parks. Welcome to Sartre Flags Parks! Suicide inducing levels of waiting for a reward of nausea! All the while surrounded by the stickiest and loudest Americans with no exit in sight forever….) After leaving and then walking back to the bus stop several times in consternation, I said “Fuck it” and left in the direction of the Cathedral. Approximately 150 yards down the road the bus blew past me. I stomped my feet and swore voluminously with what I’d like to imagine was the deep drunken creativity of Dylan Thomas at closing time, and the outsized fist shaking anger of Stone Cold Steve Austin battling the Corporation. And then I just started walking. Every driveway was a different country’s embassy and a better geographical lesson would be harder to find this side of Carmen Sandiego’s outstretched thigh. Besides, if you’re going on a pilgrimage for spiritual redemption then lots of walking really should be involved.

Fairly exhausted and sweaty, the Cathedral was beautiful and of a scale and type that does not seem to be so common in the states. Services were long over and that was fine. The air was cool and peaceful and I was really looking for a more meditative environment anyway. I found a pew off to the side and just sat until the hurt lessened to the point where I could accept the choice I’d made (and would make) to play music for a handful of people instead of being with my kids.

Ponderous Ponderables

It’s been several years of this life now and my kids seem to be doing fine. Or to put another way, I’m guessing once again I’ve overstated the importance of my omnipresent presence in their lives. I’m not sure the smothering always hovering style of modern parenting is entirely necessary or beneficial. We were talking in the van about the benign neglect of parenting when we were kids. The people in this band grew up in areas ranging from rural to mild suburbia so our experiences are not universal. It was a childhood where you were expected to be outside all day, just not late for dinner. My Dad would go away for a week or two pretty regularly and it wasn’t looked at askance. It was a bike ramps built out of scraps of wood for jumping over small muddy creeks named Snake River, Estes rocket engines dipped in gasoline, bottle rocket wars, hitting your friends dad’s liquor cabinet, riding lawn mower/tractor/go-kart driving kind of childhood. I swear I’m not trying to paint an overly bucolic picture of the way things were. I’m an adult. I have no idea what it’s like to be a child now. I hope they’re having fun, making lots of (non-fatal) poor choices, figuring out which kids are actually assholes and why, absorbing mountains of useless pop culture trivia in which to identify members of their tribe decades from now. I just figure that having the weight of parental expectations constantly upon your shoulders must be exhausting and ultimately limiting. The overwhelming love you have for your kids, and the awesome interesting people they are can make us forget the fact that our job is to turn them loose on the world.

Second through Fourth Time

Anyway, back to our history in D.C. We played the next two times at a place called the Red and the Black.** It being the equipment carried up a long flight of stairs to a small room with a stage set into the wall and encased in seedy red velvet curtains, looking for all the world like a burlesque puppet theater, kind of place. The money for the sound guy came out of the door sales so both times we made approximately $25. The band opened up for the Heartless Bastards the next time in town but had to drive through hurricane Sandy to get there.

**Best song on the new Iron Maiden record? Perhaps. The ending does go on a bit.

Rick Steve’s Presents

Back to the present: The day after Easter (See? Who says growth is unpossible?) we drove into D.C. even though our show was the next day. Why play a show after a nine-hour drive if you don’t have to? You know what this means don’t ya? Museums!! First up was a new one for me: The Air and Space Museum Annex out by Dulles Airport. The first thing I see is the Langley Aerodrome A. I am endlessly fascinated by the Wright Brothers. Seemingly socially awkward, obsessively focused, willing to scrap an idea if it’s not working or work tirelessly to hone a concept that was hazy. The idea that genius can come from diligence, stubbornness, insane amounts of hard work, as well as the inspiration that such work creates is very inspiring to me. And their native weirdness is just icing on the cake. Screw you North Carolina. Flight could only truly gestate in the isolated oddness of southern Ohio. Anyway, Langley was also trying to create powered manned flight. The difference was that he had the imprimatur of the government and the scientific community. The aerodrome was his great failure and seeing it in person it seems impossible now to ever have imagined it was going to lift humanity from the surface of the earth. The shiny and sobering Enola Gay sits center stage and it’s pretty wonderful to get up close to the shuttle Discovery. The elevated walkways around the hangar are a feature I’d love to see added to the Dayton Air Force Museum, but on the downside MacDonald’s is the only place to eat. Gross.

Next to navigate a circuitous path via the public transportation system from out there down to the Mall. Lunch in the Museum of the American Indians because it’s the only place to get a decent vegetarian meal in that area. Then on to the National Gallery. I don’t need to describe this as pretty everyone has been there, but what a lovely collection of El Grecos, Vermeers and to say nothing of the Da Vinci. The main domed area, with the fountain, what the hell is that called? Dammit. Insert architectural word here. Well it was filled with Easter Lillies and smelled divine. Few things are quite as soul filling as a good church-like art museum. Then I walked past the Capital Building with all the cherry trees so in bloom their fragrance was on the air. My feet hurt but I walked the two miles to the club, seeing parts of D.C. where the poor people most definitely weren’t. Corridors of power indeed.

Fifth Time

 It’s been a few years and our new booking agent really wanted us to try again, so it was decided we would dip our toes in at a very small club called the Treehouse. Once again with the lovely load-in up a flight of stairs, and then onto a weird stage with no monitors that was basically two squares next to each other, but offset to the point where maybe only a quarter of the two pieces are touching. So if you’re looking at the stage, the right side, where the audience can get right up next it to has Chuck and Lisa. To the left and back the rest of the band. In front of the non-Chuck/Lisa is the rail to keep us from hurtling down the stairs. Anyway, it’s weird. The owners were super nice and it became apparent pretty quickly that people were really excited to see us. The audience just poured amazing enthusiasm and love out to us and it was lovely. Lisa sang with the Paranoid Style, one of the openers, and they are truly a band to keep an eye out for. So good.

So maybe this D.C. thing is going to work out after all.

The Rest of the Leg

Our next show was an art space in a transitional neighborhood in Queens where the stage was lit only by a few naked red and blue bulbs that managed to both blind us to our instruments and yet provide no useful illumination at all. Both Chuck and Joe fell off the stage at one point. The Indian restaurant next door was so delicious that the glacially slow service was rendered irrelevant. Next up was the Milkboy in Philadelphia with our dear Phili fans. That afternoon we recorded a set in the WPRB radio studio on the Princeton campus. John Soloman was a sweetheart and it was fun to be in station with rows of vinyl singles and shelves of lp’s. Next up was a show at an old friend and long-time supporter of the bands house. House shows have such a different vibe, but I think it went well. The highlight was engaging in a full on Nerf gun battle upstairs with his kids while Lisa was singing Majestic 12, and then coming back down into the basement to finish the set. Take that Led Zeppelin for backstage hi-jinks. We finished up in Boston at the small and sold out Midway. Thalia Zedek opened up for us and she completely lived up to her reputation. A lot of familiar and friendly faces in the audience and there was a certain sweet and emotional feeling this night.

Next up we’re going to England, Scotland, and Wales. Now there’s a reason to keep the blog going. We are besides ourselves with anticipation.