The Dark Road Diary: Part 19

Vancouver, BC. Crammed in a tiny, gas-guzzling, shitty U-Haul with an uncertain transmission and careening down Interstate 5, I thought, You’re 55, man. What in the hell are you doing?


A bittersweet reality check.

This image was taken about 24 hours after walking off a stage in Portland (and a sublime Night it was…just the two of us on stage, the first time in a few years). The last US show. The intervening hours went something like this:

Van 1 (The Black Mamba II) returned and a U-Haul picked up in Portland;
The gear moved from one truck to the other;
A 6.5 hour solo drive to Vancouver, BC. (a piece of cake after the 10, 12, and 16 hour odysseys undertaken during the tour);
The rented gear accounted for and returned to the backline place;
Extra stuff packed and shipped;
A hotel found;
Another hour drive to the hotel;
Arif The Concierge employed to bring a couple weeks worth of tour tailings up to the room while the U-Haul is dropped off;
U-Haul dropped off a with minutes to spare;
Cab back to hotel;
Grab a chicken club with side salad from hotel bar;
Eat it in the room;
The remaining gear re-distributed in a delicate operation involving 4 pieces of luggage and a luggage weigh scale, which I won’t fly without;
A mound of travel receipts compiled and recorded and tallied, numbers sent to headquarters.

This image is what the end of that 24 hours looks like.

I admit I reserved these tasks for myself and did much the same at the front and back ends of all the legs of this 2019 tour—which, by the way, is kind of turning into a world tour if things keep going like they have been: 2020 is already starting to shape up into something we hadn’t foreseen. I did so not out of a twisted messianic/masochistic inclination but with good intentions: to pull my weight, to be a team player, to ease the way for the others on the road with me…and because I think I may have a touch of the Control Freak in me. I think I may have inherited my mother’s mild OCD.

This last 24-hour chunk brought with it some clarity, though. A bittersweet reality check: I am no longer 32 years old and can no longer operate as though I am. Crammed in a tiny gas guzzling shitty U-Haul with an uncertain transmission and careening down Interstate 5, I thought, You’re 55, man. What in the hell are you doing? These shitty seats are made for young people moving their lives across the country, excited for what lies ahead. Not old men running on fumes, in over their head, and trying to tie up loose ends to get home for another show. Time to get elegant.

Graceful, is what I probably meant. I had more than my share of clunky, graceless moments on tour (just ask those that were in the van when I hit a parked car after the concert in L.A.). I’ve been trying to attend to these tours in a more graceful fashion. I do believe I’ve been getting better at it since we began over 4 years ago, but I’m aiming at a version…a vision…of myself: something like Gene Kelly tiptoeing amidst puddles, or Fred Astaire putting fires out, nimble and graceful.

A man can dream.


The Dark Road Diary: Part 18

Portland, OR, wherein I contemplate the price of “a beautiful drive”.


How to love a place.

One of our hosts here in Portland, OR, calls this “Tank City” and it is the reason they will be moving soon. It is directly across the river, just waiting for an earthquake to have it’s way with whatever mystery is contained in those tanks.

Beautiful shot, though, right?

No, of course it isn’t.

We’ve covered over 4000 miles on this leg, through the Rockies, along the ocean, through the Mojave dessert, through wind storms and snow storms and rain, under blue skies and by the cover of night, under full moons and through inky dark air. All of it “beautiful” except for the tortured sections of that very ground that allowed for our travel and participation in the concerts: the asphalt, the pipelines, the power generation stations and their feeder lines strung up on towers as far as the eye could see, the gas stations, the lakes of California forlornly and shockingly low still allowing recreational boating and surrounded by drought afflicted hills covered with dried trees, planted firewood now, just waiting for a spark. Begging for it, maybe, to put them out of their misery.

Yeah…I understand better now: if you really love a place on this planet, the best way to love it is by staying away.

That we–the band and I–are complicit in this is not lost on me. I don’t know what to do about that. Is it enough that The Nights  are my shot at redemption? Probably not.

I’m guessing I will have a lot to answer to when the time comes. Meanwhile, there is a crow yelling at me from the tree I’m sitting under. I’ll try to explain myself, beginning with him…or her.


The Dark Road Diary: Part 17

Santa Fe, NM, wherein I finally play solo trumpet in front of people. Only took 23 years.


The Terrified Trumpeteer.

When I was 32 years old, I came across a wrecked trumpet in a shed. I wrestled a decent note from it and slowly fell in love with the idea of being able to play it. I always thought trumpet was cool…cooler than me, cooler than guitar…and I wanted to be cool. I though maybe learning how to play would help my musicality as I’d always been afraid of playing single note lines on the guitar and the trumpet is notoriously single note-ey. I quickly learned it was a crummy horn and bought a student model. I carried the horn everywhere with me in the car, playing when I could, and made a deal with myself that I’d play in front of people by the time I was 35. Then 40. Then 45. Then 50. I snuck it on a few recordings, into a few shows in places I could hide it.

Last night in Santa Fe, we decided to add a piece of SJ’s at the top of the Night and I came up with the foolish idea I would open the piece with solo horn. This was before we knew the house was standing room only I. A rather large theatre. In the dressing room, I explained my idea to SJ and attempted to play what I had in mind, bleating and squeaking all over the place, a comical sound. We broke up laughing and I said, “Maybe this is a bad idea…”

After the laughter died down, Stephen said, “No man, I think it’s great! It’s brave.”

I counted my blessings to be working with a man that valued that kind of bravery at the risk of a very awkward couple of minutes in front of a packed house and the derailment of a good story the trumpet was trying to set up. Yes, I counted my blessings and privately to rued the day I ever thought I could play in front of people. When you get nervous singing, you can still breathe through it. When you get nervous playing guitar, you can still breathe through it. When you get nervous playing trumpet, well…you are too busy breathing through the trumpet and there is no place to calm your breath. To boot, your nervousness shows up in your lips (embouchure, it is called) and your lips are doing almost all the work. Trumpet is risky business.

This photo was snapped by drummer Adam Bowman minutes before going on stage. What you see here is a terrified non-trumpet playing man going over in his mind how he will communicate to Stephen on stage he is bailing from playing trumpet.

In the end, I didn’t bail. It wasn’t perfect (like it is when I play alone in the car or studio) but it was brave, I guess. Maybe next time it’ll be perfect. If there is a next time.


The Dark Road Diary: Part 16.2

Denver, CO: wherein I find shelter from the shitstorm when I meet McKaylee, The Strong Trouperette.


The Strong Trouperette.

Screwed Sometimes Addendum: Later that same day…

More gods throwing more marbles on the ground…almost literally. Charlie twists his knee getting out of the van at the venue; the van at the venue is parked a considerable distance from the venue itself; word from the venue is we can’t bring our truck up to the load-in door; local sound crew/gear and band  loading in at same time, not quite enough people to ease the burden of moving a mountain of gear; I’m not sure whether to be angry or grateful when I see McKaylee—the slight 11 year-old daughter of our Denver host—rolling massive, heavy amp racks and speaker stacks up a frustrating incline on a pedestrian-only walkway; the wrangling knee braces and ice, food, lighting, electricity, another @#%!! follow spot that needed pampering; and lastly, due to a glitch at the home office, our greenroom was more of a greenhouse, surrounded as it was by windows onto a part of the lobby and the aforementioned pedestrian walkway. All this—plus the previous 24 hours—in the face of the full house the Denver team manifested, much to our good fortune, and a testament to their hard work.

It seems that this dark Road Diary is a litany of challenges. Maybe the Dark Road is lined with challenges, or paved with them. It certainly seems to be that way. Still, that’s just one side of the endeavour…the challenges often pop up in the mechanics of the  proceedings. Even in the SNAFU’d course of the day, this can happen:

Upon seeing McKaylee trying to carry a big side table for the stage plus 2 paper bags full of greenroom stuff, I intercept her and finally introduce myself.

ME: Hey. I’m Gregory. What’s your name?

MCKAYLEE: McKaylee.

ME : It’s nice to meet you, McKaylee.

MCKAYLEE: It’s nice to meet you, too, Gregory.

Just those words of welcome, her young voice embroidered with kindness and respect—It’s nice to meet you, too, Gregory—was like coming across a calm eddy in a torrent of adult-onset bullshit. 

We redistribute her armload of stuff, put one of the bags and the table atop the last rolling amp rack, and begin the ascent to the venue door. Obviously, cups are falling, the table is falling, the drawer from the table is falling, and eventually I’m swearing.

ME: Sorry for swearing so much, I said.  I shouldn’t be swearing.

MCKAYLEE: It’s ok. I hang out with the Grade Eights. They always swear.

Great, I think to myself. I have the temperament of an American schoolchild when I’m under pressure.

I didn’t get to hang out much with McKaylee after that, but I did see her flit about sporting a tour tee shirt. I hope she keeps it for a long time, along with the memory of that day she helped a band stand on its feet and deliver what it had promised to her hometown after a long and trying day. 

Our brief meeting sliced open a vein of yearning to hear the voices of my own kids. I’ll be calling them as soon as the van stops rolling. Somewhere in New Mexico, I think.

gh


The Dark Road Diary: Part 16

Salt Lake City, UT, and Denver, CO: wherein we undertake repairs to the van, a show that day, a night drive through the mountains, more driving through a windstorm the next day, a storm of a different sort at the venue etc etc etc…


Screwed Sometimes.

Imagine that you are travelling through the world, that you are floored with good intent, that you are proceeding as you imagine your ancestors might have done before the times of indenture and servitude, obeying the nap of the world, certain that real tinkers and gypsies would recognize you at once from across the fields and claim you as their errant kin, faithful to the fluster and wild sorrow of your days, faithful to the star chart conjured and cast on the wind blown night of your birth.

These days, that would make of you, among a fistful of other things, a – forgive this technical term from the road warrior lexicon – shit magnet. Do something that raises neither the hackles nor the ire of the regime, you’ll probably cruise through unscathed, no harm meant, no harm done. But call your outfit, oh, Night of Grief andMystery, and a couple of likelihoods might gather. 

You might be haunted across three states by a slow leak in a tire, be unnerved by it enough to go to three fix-it places on gig day and flirt with load-in disaster, only to be thwarted by the service sector and then be taken into the slip stream of human kindness by Andy, who does the job for free because you’re so far from home and because the necessary paperwork for it would mess with his joy at getting off work at noon, who with a princely flourish presents you with the culprit, the sheared-off business end of a wood screw.

Or you might pull into a service centre to give the band a pee stop and seek shelter from 60 MPH winds that are prompting the automated road signs to warn you off the road for the next 65 miles for fear of being blown over, and bring your choice of nutritionally questionable snacks to the counter for payment, where Flo is waiting to serve you in a head scarf and a breathing mask, both signs of someone with a wickedly compromised immune system courtesy of chemo or radiation, who in her irrepressible lilt asks where you’re heading (Denver) and why (a show) and for what kind of show (music) and what kind of music (hard to describe, as usual) and is it Dick Clark music or Johnny Cash music? That’s when it hits you that Flo has figured it out from the likely cliff edge of her life, that this gig is a kind of Man-in-Black thing that you can dance to.

SJ


The Dark Road Diary: Part 15

Spokane, WA: wherein we wake up in one country, almost don’t get into the next country, and prevail in a 105 year old theatre in a town we’ve never played.


The Night that almost wasn’t.

Resilience. I know…if you’ve been reading any of these Dark Road things, you’ll know that word has popped up a lot. 

It’s amazing to me that we wake up in the morning (assuming you do wake up) staring down the barrel of the day and have no idea whatsoever what is gunning for us or who will love us on the way to getting on the other side of the next gig, which is all I want to do: just let me get on the other side of the next gig, please.

Yesterday, a simple clerical error on Charlie’s visa had us detained at the border crossing with the likelihood of having to leave him behind…a heart-breaking prospect…and the rest of us being held until he was back in Canada. This is what I learned: mountains are immovable, that is true, but mountains are scalable. Once you get over the shock of the immovability of the thing, you can set yourself to climbing. Sometimes you reach for a handhold you know is there, sometimes you’re hoping your hand and foot finds a purchase. Sometimes you choose the wrong path and have to double back. There is a lot of swearing, apparently (though I wasn’t aware that I was dropping F-bombs all over the tiny waiting room of Border and Customs.) You pause, breathe, and make your next move in the general direction of “up”. 

In this case, the “next move up” was a gentle suggestion they contact the office responsible for the error. US border and customs people aren’t really into taking suggestions, but this person did…a little reluctantly, maybe…so all the more credit to that person. All breaths held as we danced delicately around ignoring our companeros in a second car pulling up not 5 feet from the little room the rest of us were in, involved in their own mountain drama, and finally an exhale watching them pull ahead and disappear down the road. 

It was never guaranteed we would get to the top of the mountain, but we did. Charlie got a new visa. We were all quiet in the van until SJ spoke about the consequence of words, of speaking aloud, and the root of the word “fate”. We pulled into a weird casino/ rest stop to gather ourselves and grab a bit of food, late for the load-in now. Someone yelled to me as we were walking out of the place: in his hand an envelope of cash I’d left in the bathroom. I looked at his hand, looked at his face, and back to his hand as it dawned on me what he was holding out to me. I took the envelope, held his eyes, shook his hand slowly, and assumed he knew how grateful I was. Didn’t say a word…neither of us.

The gig in Spokane had its challenges from the very beginning, and narrowly avoided being cancelled altogether.  No one could have seen what was gunning for us, nor could we see how we would be loved through to the other side. But we were. The venue was great, the people who wrangled the gig on the ground there were great, the pinch-hitter host brought in at the 11th hour was great, even the hotel was great. And the crowd was great, dancing in the aisles and with us all the way.

We were pretty good, too.

gh


The Dark Road Diary: Part 14

Nelson, BC: wherein we bury a part of the Night and make our way to the US for the last time this year.


Calling In The Saints and RIP Hoskins’ speechifying.

If I have my wits about me (and mostly I don’t) I give my camera to Charlie to snap a couple photographs for me from his vantage point during the proceedings and I did this last night in Nelson,BC. Back in the hotel room after the show, I was thumbing through some of these pics and stopped short at this one. 

We start every Night with what we privately call “The Invocation”. It is exactly what the word implies, but its proper title is “Calling In The Saints”. This shot is from the beginning of the Night: Lisa, Emily, Ana Elia, and Colleen singing a very old song, the rest of us in the room listening to this overture to the invocation, to calling in the saints.

Every night we get to play is another chance for me to get some things right. After the refreshing dip back into the songs and sounds in Langley on the other side of a couple weeks off, last night found me floundering when it came time to play the trumpet and take a turn at the mic to talk about a new song. This “speechifying “ has been challenging, and the band has been patient (the band has also been patient with my trumpet “playing”, but I’m not ready to give that up quite yet). But it’s clear I’m not built for talking, not in the way that is being asked of me. The guitar and singing lets me leave a part of me behind, but the talking drags me back into my muddled brain. So, no more.

You will thank me later.


The Dark Road Diary: Part 13

Langley, BC: wherein we reconvene for the final leg of this tour.


When we see the end.

The view through the smoked glass window in the back of The Black Mamba 2 (what I call the current wheels carrying us) as we leave Langley, BC, headed for Nelson and then the US. And then the end of the tour.

It had only been 2 and a half weeks since we played in Minneapolis, but the consensus in the green room was that it had felt longer. We had obviously all missed being in the thrall of the the thing, and I must say it showed up for us on stage. It was a good Night. The more I tour like this, the more I come to understand that we essentially playfor free. It’s the travel and all the out-front work that we get paid for. That’s the work of it. It’s no secret, and it’s not news to you, probably, but the time on stage is the payoff.

To the good people who filled the hall in Langley, the good people who wrangled the whole thing for their town, and the good people who gave us their backs and arms and food and help of all kind: thank you. Your presence makes all the in-between worth it. 


The Dark Road Diary: Part 12

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: wherein we confront all manner of things on the way to this gem of a moment near the end of the Night’s proceedings. The final Tour Trailer for this tour. All it is missing is an explosion.


But all we have is this.

“If we could , you know we would:
We’d accompany each of you to your door this evening.

We’d see to it that the key still worked,
that the door still opened
that it was still your house.

We’d close the door behind you but before we did,
with your kind permission,
we would kiss our lips,
kiss you on the head,
and bless you.

But all we have is this.”

SJ, Pittsburgh, NOGM, Oct 15 2019


The Dark Road Diary: Part 11

Dubuque, Iowa: wherein gh wonders about old songs in a new life as we saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Crucible

So, you write a song for the right reasons, you record it, and give it as many chances at a “meaningful life” as you can. But you can’t control outcomes, so the songs and the recordings float out there in the wide, wide world beyond your reach and influence. Best to leave them alone and to practice letting go.

Maybe one day –unknown to you– they make their way into someone’s life and weave themselves into a story not of your making. They adapt and transform, and maybe you hear about it in an electronic note or a handwritten letter, or a voice from a crowd or a chat after a concert. Suddenly, this old thing has a new meaning and you stand there amazed by it, humbled by it, moved by it, mystified by it, grateful to it.

I’ve been wondering lately why I haven’t been rushing to play solo shows, why I’ve thrown my lot in so emphatically with Nights of Grief & Mystery for the time being: I think it is because the Nights give the songs a container to be in, a context where they mingle with other elements and undergo some kind of alchemical transformation, become a part of something unseen when I wrote them. The collaboration has us going through my song catalog to see ‘what-might-fit-where’ in the Night, and so some songs get a new lease on life while others see the light of day and get put tenderly away again because, though it is clear there is a good line or two, they don’t quite stand on their feet when it comes to carrying a heavy load. There are more of these than I care to admit, but I’m grateful to those songs, too. 

The Nights run hot…what drives them has nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with everything that is not distraction. Thus, the ego is burned away from the songs over and over again and all that is left is the ineffable intention I had when I wrote them. Sometimes the song and the singer are left standing. Sometimes they are cinders.

Turns out Nights of Grief & Mystery is a crucible.

gh


The Dark Road Diary: Part 10

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Humility on The Dark Road

In a truck stop in Marion, Illinois, just north of Clarkesville—the Clarkesville that the last train goes to, I think— we pulled into a no parking zone to have a “picnic”. This is a code word for “let’s make a meal from the green room food we didn’t eat last night.” In this case, last night’s green room was in Nashville and the leftovers consisted of an amazing fish stew,  Mulligatawny soup and some apples. One or two of us crossed the parking lot to the fast food joint that was there, but the rest dug in, standing huddled around the food bin, trying to stay out of the substantial wind that had been blowing all day.

Across the same parking lot came a man, his eyes locked on us and our van and trailer, and I was sure he was coming to A) tell us to move the illegally parked van/trailer or B) to get an autograph from Willie Nelson (happens in airports all the time). 

He heads straight for Stephen and says, “I was at your show in Nashville last night and had to say thank you.” Stunned us all. More than 200 miles from last nights’ show, in a no-frills truck stop, this man explains he is a palliative care nurse, that he lives and works in Chicago, and that he drove 4 and a half hours to come see The Night in an intimate theater in Nashville. “I just couldn’t believe my eyes when you pulled up…you and this fella, “ he said throwing his head towards me. “Everyone who works in my field should see this show.” 

In a truck stop on I 64 under a threatening sky, with a serious accident unfolding just ahead that will close down the interstate and change the lives of those involved (unknown to us as we huddle around the food bin) and more hours than we counted on to get to the next hotel, I was reminded why you never hold back when playing for people.

Nine hours on the road to see us…almost 1000 miles…with no clear expectations or promises of what the evening would be. 

That is humbling.

gh

The Dark Road Diary: Part 9

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Wrestling Old Ghosts

Theater 80, NYC

Sunday

New York City: You write those three words down, in that order, and there’s a feeling of having written a tight, picaresque novella. They have that weight, no doubt. They do for me, and I don’t favour the place. It has always been too much for me, all at once. But to play there: I’ll admit it on behalf of the band, was and remains a BIG FRIGGING DEAL. This is largely because I have a strong sense that everyone there HAS SEEN IT ALL, BABY, SEVENTEEN TIMES. 
So, if at the end of one of these most unlikely of evenings, undertaken in a speakeasy of previous times/now an off off Broadway atmospheric and odoriferous black box owned and operated by what is surely a bejeweled, silver cane-wielding aristocrat of a failed city state of yesteryear, the crowd’s generosity of spirit alive in their laughter, alive in their silences rises, and they rise en masse to bless you as you take leave of them … well, then, it seems you have truly stood and delivered, and served the Muses their portion, and kept to the covenantal jangle of the bardic road life.
And we shook that monkey of last year’s NYC audio debacle off our backs. Mercy prevailed.

Inside This is Red, Pittsburgh, PA

Tuesday

Pittsburgh: An eight hour bus ride down the highway to a lapsed and former Slavic Cathedral (I know. We did put ‘NO CHURCHES’ in the contract. Nobody seems to read the fine print. Myself included.), now one of the craziest, most seductive and tricked out high tech venues I’ve ever heard tell of. A three story high vaulted mahogany ceiling, Byzantine tiles set in the walls, spectacular Oaxacan-style brickwork, moody lighting, a green room where the priest once prepared for mass. A few ghosts from the Old World, wondering what became of their heirs. Grief and Mystery, alright.
Now, perhaps you’ve made rash but entirely necessary promises to yourself as your days have gone by. Vows, even. And if you lived through the eighties, those promises might have included something like this: “No matter what, I’ll never do a music video. Never, no matter what.” If you did, we have that in common. I had no reason to make such a vow, no lifestyle choice, no skill that would ever lift that strange vow to the realm of possibility or likelihood. But in truth, back in the day, I’d watched enough of those crude novelties – added up, whole days of my lifetime that I’ll never get back – that the vow at least made some kind of moral or artistic sense.
So you know what I’m going to tell you now. An hour before show time last night, the Grief and Mystery ensemble is on stage for a three-camera video shoot of various takes on what we do. At first it seemed like a record, a kind of archive thing, like recording a live show. But there was just enough ‘lights/camera/action’ to the business to give me the bends, morally or artistically speaking. Mr. Hoskins (‘Hoss’, we might come to call him), the dervish of detail in such moments, drove the film crew to fits of precision, focus and unwavering technical prowess, himself calling for retake after retake. With patrons for the evening’s show already lining up outside and looking through the stained glass for a glimpse of the shenanigans, the band hit their mark. They were tight, model musical professionals. I blew my lines several times, ludicrous because I wrote and crafted all of them some years ago, and the order and the cadence of them were mine, and barring neurodegenerative disarray should have come to me easily. But I’m no actor. That much self understanding was renewed.

Fifty minutes later its time for ‘Ladies and Gentlemen …’, and we reach into the mortal depths once more, and we believe in these strange nights. And we earn our keep. Tears and applause enough, and enough ribaldry from the Steel City crowd, and three hours later weare sipping smokey whiskey with the owners and the local organizers in the emptied hall, all of us beginning to lie with alarming and escalating confidence about the epic edges of our lives, and for a while, as the Old Man, the patron saint of this operation unawares, so properly put it: 
The whole damn place goes crazy twice. And its once for the devil. And its once for Christ.

SJ

The Dark Road Diary: Part 8

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Prevail #2: by Lisa Hodgson

In the This Is Red venue, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo: Gabe Jenkinson

Prove more powerful than opposing forces; be victorious.

“We prevailed” has been the most commonly uttered first words spoken after walking the dark road from the stage and back to the temporary shelter of our greenroom.

Ahhh…the mercy, the kind labour’s of our many hosts providing us with a sanctuary, may you ALL know how immeasurably important and crucial your offerings are.

You see, we DO prevail….over and over again. And the opposing forces? Well…they are there, EVERY SINGLE TIME. Do we prevail because we are more powerful? No. We prevail because each one of us is willing to saunter along this dark road, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, other times with arms outstretched and a knowing glance to the mystery, all ragged and breathlessly whispering… “Shall we Dance?” Nights of Grief & Mystery…We asked for it, They deliver…and then some.

I’m in.

lisa

The Dark Road Diary: Part 7

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Sometimes you are asked to prevail.

Load In: NYC

Some nights you are just asked to show up and do your thing. Other nights, you are asked to prevail.  New York always asks the latter of us. 

gh

The Dark Road Diary: Part 6

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


The Church of What’s Happening Now

In The Maine Irish Heritage Hall. Photo by Adam Bowman.

We made a deal with ourselves, with each other, with whatever brought us together a few years back, that – having tried, mind you, tried and tried again – we wouldn’t play churches. Call it bad faith: I’m not sure I’d argue. Call it a fall from whatever grace would have us: a case could be made. But we put it in the contract: No Churches. No Used-to-be-Churches either. 
Obviously a good number of people have associations with such places that won’t or can’t be overcome, and so are deeply dissuaded from darkening the doorways. Given even the documented histories, that’s understandable. And I for one have spoken or played or performed under more crucifixions, tormented stick figures, metaphorized and raptured butterflies rising from the rack, back lit by incontestable stained glass vignettes, than is wise. But the tactical strategy for the prejudice is this: for reasons unknown to me, they built these places in the old days so that people in the pews couldn’t quite make out what was being said at the front of the hall. The sound, almost always, is swimming, turgid, swampy in all the ways you wouldn’t want, and unwarm. And entombed.

So we pull into Portland, Maine yesterday, and we adjust the set list to bring back one of our operatic favourites: Never Be a Poet. We’ve done so because we’ve been booked into the Maine Irish Heritage Hall, and the story is about my first trip to Ireland, and about all the weather of fatherhood and frailty, and because Portland has a noble history of welcoming ragged survivors of The Famine in the mid-1800’s. Beautiful confluence. Until we pull up to the Maine Irish Heritage Hall. And it is a proper Gothic pile, a nineteenth century used-to-be-a-cathedral, in fact. Oh oh.
Without our man in the house, Charles, we’d have been in the shit, in every way that can be imagined. But his chops with the knobs, and a way-too-long sound check, and a quick dressing room revamp of the set list to accommodate the utter lack of light on stage and cut down on us moving around, and a band that trusts itself now to rise, and faithful Erin-led local organizers/workers, and especially a curious, slow to warm but beautifully locked-in crowd of the children of the children’s children who Came From Away in those ruinous days: all of that wound itself around this once and only night granted to us to grieve and be mystified, and for a while all was marvellous and well. Street legal devastation of the uninvestigated life proceeded. The people in the book signing line testified to it, were strangely grateful for it. Elegant praise. Generosity of spirit. Burgundy in the back room afterwards. Reasons to live.

Amen.

SJ

The Dark Road Diary: Part 5

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Highjacked, held hostage.

End of Night, Turners Falls

Some nights more than others, the emotional current seems to run higher.  There are a lot of reasons for this and I don’t know them all, and last night in Turners Falls…a full house, an old theatre, an absolute crack team of young people on the ground there (led by the intrepid Erica) setting the scene for us…was properly a high-octane Night, a perfect way to start this tour.

Sometimes, fatigue is the the crack that emotion seeps through for me. I’m not a fan of tears on stage, but occasionally I’m highjacked, held hostage by the moment until it relents. Last night was that kind of night for me, both in the dressing room and on stage. There was a different kind of fatigue in the house, too: the one that makes itself known living in these times, in this country specifically: people tired of carrying a weight they didn’t realize they were carrying.

So the wreckage was deep and very much in evidence for us in Turners Falls last night. I was lucky to be a witness.

gh

The Dark Road Diary: Part 4

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


4 Years On…

The Faces of The Great American Diner

According to the elves that live in silicone chips in my cell phone, 4 years ago today I was sitting in the El Quijote bar (right beside the Chelsea Hotel) in NYC. I was drinking not-so-great red wine and expensive but equally not-so-great gazpacho. Still, I was geeking out: it was THE El Quijote attached to THE Chelsea Hotel. I was waiting to meet up with Stephen at the venue a few blocks away for our first official gig…just the two of us.

Tonite, I’m in a Days Inn in Utica, NY. 

SJ is here, too.

And 7 others who in various capacities have thrown in their lot with us on dark road: Lisa, Charlie, Adam, Gabe, Colleen, The Spaniard, The Choirmaster. The packing, the repacking, the driving, the rendezvous-ing, the driving again, the border crossing, the border fingerprinting/picture taking/question answering, the driving, the diner stop, the driving…all leads tonite to a Days Inn in Utica. 

Tomorrow we begin. Tonite, we were driving on dark roads in America.

The Wide Shot of Truth

Árneshreppur, Iceland. Photo by Colleen Hodgson

Early on, Stephen described what we did on stage in the US and Australia as “carving in the air”. We’d walk on to a silent stage, just the two of us, with no idea what we’re going to do, so his description of what followed is bang on. We still walk on to silent stages, and I’ve come to describe the current edition of NOGM -— which boasts 7 people on stage— as “sauntering on a tightrope.”

We are always on the tightrope on this tour, and any unbalanced movement feels like jeopardy. I suppose there is a pressure to “know things” on a tour like this. Then again, for most of the last decade I’ve been thinking there comes a time in life that one is invited to plant a flag in what they’ve become certain of, even if it seems dangerous —as it does these days —to know things. If you’ve been lucky enough to have lived a life that has brought you into contact with vulnerability (your own and that of others) then you might not screw this up.

Standing in what you know doesn’t look anything like power. Quite the opposite. It leads to more vulnerability. It can lead to a lot of “not knowing”. That’s why it’s not for the faint of heart.

Or politicians. Or celebrities.

I’m trying to learn to not be faint of heart. Useful in a war and all that.

The wide shot of Truth.

Good thing I’m not alone in the learning.

gh

The Dark Road Diary: Part 3

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Another Kind of Light

Soundcheck at La Tulipe, Montreal.

You begin in the light
and you end in wisdom,
if the gods prevail.
But otherwise,
light.

SJ

There are some songs you can play in the morning or afternoon and there are songs that need the night. Some kinds of performative work live happily on a sun-drenched stage and others wilt under that kind of light. I’ve always felt more at home singing my stuff knowing that night has fallen, or at least is about to. The dark helps to contain things. Like being tenderly cupped in giant hands, the way we do with an insect we’re trying to transport out of the house to freedom without hurting it. The dark helps deliver a performance in the same way.  

Clearly, the world changes at night. Behavioural patterns of all kinds shift in flora, fauna, and town folk. “I said, the night is a dangerous thing,” I once wrote. I was afraid of the dark for a long time. But then again…


If you look deep,
deep enough,
into the heart of night,
you’ll see that it is just another kind of light,
if you look deep enough into The Heart of Night.

From Take A Little Walk, gh

I wrote that once, too.

So, this tour, its not Grief & Mystery: its NIGHTS of Grief & Mystery. Because that is when grief, mystery, and all their relations show up at your door, insinuating themselves into your kitchens, living rooms, and beds, without your permission but probably with your blessing.

We turn the house lights down, affording you a kind of privacy and inviting the blurred edges the dark offers, and we bring up the lights on stage hopefully just enough that you can see the kindness in our eyes. We don’t use the light to illuminate us, per se. We use the light to accentuate the dark.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to have someone at the lighting console who helps in this regard. Like Jeremy in La Tulipe in Montreal. Thank you, Jeremy.

The Dark Road Diary: Part 2

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Charlie

Charlie Scaife at the console, Kingston, ON.

This is Charlie. Charlie is joining us on the road as Front of House Sound Engineer. Charlie is gold. Charlie is a godsend. 

We have learned the hard way that we need to have someone at the soundboard who knows and cares for what we are doing on stage. We were lucky enough to have Joe Meekums with us in the UK for a few shows and we quickly learned how to love the soundman. We needed someone from this continent for this tour, though.

Enter Charlie. He is young and, shockingly, wants to be an FOH guy. He has no hidden aspirations to be in a band and is not a budding recording engineer who is just biding his time as a live engineer until he can get a studio gig.  No, Charlie wants to be a live sound guy. Chances are, a few years from now, you’ll be at a massive concert somewhere and it’ll be Charlie at the board. 

So we have traded the lean touring machine of the duo back in The Day for a bigger machine that boasts nine (!!!!) people on the road. But this machine has a proper mechanic tuning up the engine with Charlie in tow. I know (and you can hear my sigh in this) that not everyone will be satisfied with the sound at the concerts. It’s always something.  Having Charlie at the console is our way of doing everything we can to ensure what we are doing on stage gets to your ears in the best possible way.

And he is a ginger.  So, he’s in good company in this band.

gh

The Dark Road Diary: Part 1

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


The Choir

The Choir during soundcheck in Montreal. Photo by Dianna Sutherland.

They spin gossamer with their voices and drape it on to the rest of us. They are a projection from somewhere else…not quite earthly. Skilled and passionate, we in the band quickly became addicted to them.

“We’re not gonna get used to this, right?” was the cautionary phrase thrown about during our run in Ontario and Quebec. Turns out they are joining us on the rest of the tour.

Yes. We are going to get used to this.

gh

The Dark Road Diary: Prologue

Wherein we keep you apprised of making our way down the dark roads and dark, dark woods on our saunter around the continent on these Nights of Grief & Mystery.


Loading in, London, UK.

You’ve heard the expression: Life on the road.

That’s the fabrication of someone who wasn’t there, or someone who is trying to fool their family or friends. The road is no kind of life, not really. It’s what you’re doing instead of your life, something you hope your normal life tolerates on a good day, survives on the rest of them. Part piratical ensemble, part motorcycle gang, part asylum choir, your companions on the road close ranks to stay sane and pliable, and you are wise to draw nigh to their care-laden ministrations. Mostly heavy weather, obliging you to peak just at the time of day that almost everyone within five hundred kilometres is cooling down, you strangely privileged and burdened and shanghaied by your fate, the road is stern and lacks moderation or compromise. It can be a riot of adamant joy, too, and redeeming. But that’s not the general weather of the thing. How to duck and avoid blinking at the same time: that’s the strategy.


Once in a while one of your confederates peeks out from under the teflon veneer, gains something like focus, and takes the measure of things. What you have here is Gregory Hoskins doing that as the Nights of Grief & Mystery erupt and ebb across the UK, and Canada, and the United States, in 2019. I for one rely on these notices from the fray, since my position in the scheme banishes whatever chance I’d have to attend one of these nights and see for myself. They are chance and momentous encounters with Our Times, and Mr. Hoskins is just left-of centre stage to get the hang of the thing.
So I recommend his glimpses of the road. Saves you the ordeal, and lends you gratitude for the ordinary days.

Stephen Jenkinson

The Dangers of Travel (with apologies to Don Rooke)

Note: Don wrote a song called “The Dangers of Travel” that I sang on The Henrys’ recording “Quiet Industry”. A beautiful song that has nothing to do with the following, except for the title, which I stole.

This travelling thing is not for the faint of heart.

There are the usual uncertainties of the road (food, lodging, language) and those can be challenging enough.  But I have been learning these last few years that the heart also has to be able and ready to be broken by the beauty of the land, some of the people you meet there, and by the stories of the place.

Cases in point…

Broken by People

Meet Gudjon. His name translates to English as “God Man”. He was born and raised in the north of Iceland on a farm on the edge of the Norwegian Sea…the very edge. He is a talented painter, carver, stone mason, builder, farmer, fisherman, singer, blacksmith, leather worker, and specializes in the restoration of ancient Viking buildings (he has 2 “practice houses” he built in a field behind his house…along with a handful of other buildings and a Viking boat). He studies runic writing. He tends to his herb gardens.

He was generous with tales of his family and generous with his praise of the previous evening’s concert. A language barrier can purify intent in the back-and-forth of trying to communicate. Of my singing, he said “Takes me on a journey here,” tapping his fingers to his chest.

Colleen, Gudjon (God Man), gh, Lisa

Emotions were hijacked saying farewell when I realized how much I liked this guy I had only known for 36 hours or so (this kind of raid on trying to be cool is happening more and mo re). As we hugged goodbye, the heart cracked open a bit. Sure, the fracture was to allow admission of one more, but a break is a break and there is scar tissue now, the kind that occurs when you find and then have to leave a kindred spirit.

And God Man was not the only one. There was Helgi the filmmaker who stumbled across us in the north and followed us for a day. There was the Lord of the Manor of Trefacwyn, with whom we spent some magical days in Pembrokeshire, Wales. And there was the Old Caretaker of the Reykholt Hall who bonded with the band for a few hours as we set up, played, tore down and loaded out, embracing me warmly and then bowing to us all from the loading dock as we got into the van and, catching and holding my eye, tipping his hat to me before closing the loading dock doors. I wear no hat, so the best I could do was to blow him a kiss, which he smiled at and accepted as he disappeared. Another kindred spirit, another co-conspirator, another older song and dance man.

Broken by Stories

Elin’s Ger

This Mongolian ger was a long dreamed of thing of our host in Iceland, Elin. We spent a day there, our little band accompanied by Gudjon and a filmmaker from Sweden who had taken a shining to us at our concert the night before, and we cooked a meal, and walked the coast. As of this moment, the ger sits on land that is becoming the flash point in a long battle against foreign interests (Canadian lead) aiming to build a large scale hydro electric dam in the area. 270 square miles of affected area, the large scale flooding of vast lands, the end of three major rivers and hundreds of waterfalls, annihilating the flora and fauna that have been there since before memory, and changing the landscape in the way that only humans have had the hubris to do. As I write this, the engines of the big machines have just been fired up in the little village we left yesterday, the machinery preparing the road for bigger machinery to come, and some of the locals are weighing out the consequences of lying down in front of them.

The heart breaks.

Broken by Place

Beauty so bright, I took to wearing my sleeping mask while travelling.

At the most unsuspecting moments, the land itself steals away the breath along with any certainties of how beautiful “home” is. You’d have to have no pulse to be unmoved by the scenery offered up through the window of the van. The visual hits keep coming, again and again and again, until you start to feel exhausted by awe, the impulse to capture things on your phone finally numbed, and the van gets quiet because there are no more exclamations left in anyones’s belly, no more air in the lungs.

Such beauty can easily cause the heart to ache. And when the moment comes to turn away, to put all that beauty at your back to journey home, the heart breaks. Happened to us in Scotland, happened to us in Wales, happened to us in Iceland.

I will consider myself to be a very fortunate man indeed if my heart keeps breaking like this.

Lost Nation Road: Ian Mackenzie Explains

Ian Mackenzie—or “Two Tone” or “Sport Coat” or “ Two Fiddy” as I call him—shows us a little behind the scenes stuff and explains how he came to understand why he wanted to create a film that documented the Nights of Grief & Mystery. He was there as close to the beginning as a person with a camera could possibly have been.

The Skill of Sauntering

Here’s what I learned in Árneshreppur this morning: the word “saunter” has its’ roots in the words “sanctity, sanity, sanitation (ie.respectful cleanliness)” and “terra”. In a nut shell, Holy Ground.

So, to saunter is to proceed as if one is walking on holy ground, taking time, watching where you step, altering the course when need be…walking WITH the place you are, not ON it. From a distance, this can look aimless.  Not so.

It’s the more artful approach to any kind of getting from Point A to Point B…and takes into account the territory you are travelling through and the inhabitants of that territory…be that on land, in your thoughts, or in a performance.

Tonight in this village at North  66° 3’  4.6002”  West 21° 32’ 55.5864” we will be doing exactly that.

All great stories are love stories, aren’t they?

And so are all great tragedies love stories, too.

All the great adventure stories, all the great comedies, have love at the centre of them.

As does this story that Ian Mackenzie has fashioned into a short film after some panel somewhere deemed him and the concept a worthy thing and gave him a small whack of dough to keep the wolves at bay and hire some folks to help him. Since 2015, when Stephen Jenkinson and I first went out on the road with little but a notion and a Quixotic mutual “I’m in”, Ian followed us with his camera, capturing the ephemera of touring America, shooting some of the shows, and conducting straight up interviews.  It was a tough row to hoe because SJ and I didn’t really know what we were doing and while the idea of the author and the singer figuring it out in front of a paying audience was something to see, I’d have to say we didn’t give him much to work with.

Except for the love story.

That handful of concerts Ian shot turned into 15 or so stops in America and then another dozen in Australia then another few in Canada then another 7 in the UK then another 25 in North America then another 8 in the UK and as I write this I am on a plane to Iceland where we will do another three, and then home to do another 25 in North America and then Scotland and then Ireland and then Istanbul and then Tel Aviv…you get the point. 

Somewhere along the way we began to understand what we were trying to do, what was possible to do. We learned theatre had a place in this so we added lights that I’d operate with my feet. We learned that pulse was important so we added a drummer. We learned that texture was important so we added another singer and taught her to play keys. We learned that this was something older than theatre, something like ceremony but older still, something like ritual, so we tore the wall down between us and the audience so that the audience is in on the ritual. We learned that every ship needs an anchor so we added a bass player and asked her to sing, too.

So where’s the love story, you ask? Well, let me ask you: why would we wake at ungodly hours to get to airports, suffer the lineups and indignation’s of the security gauntlet, fly for hours and hours, drive for hours and hours, lug gear in and out and in and out and up and down and down and up over and over and over and then crawl into a questionable bed in a questionable hotel only to do it again the next day and the next and the next?  Why would we risk the farm and the physical body to fund the thing? And why would we risk stepping out on to stages in (what is turning out) to be cities all over the world armed not with bullet proof grooves full of helium to lift people out of their lives and make them feel better about all the questionable moves we’ve made as a species but instead seek to crack the rib cage open and bathe the heart in songs and tales that are sorrowful, about endings of all kinds, and actually attempt to get people to sink into their sorrows?

Because of the love of the thing. Because of the life-long love of and respect for the alchemy of words. Because the love of the feeling of lungs full of air and the long note wrapping itself around a phrase, singing what life has to teach. Because of the love for the occasional moment where I can hear an echo of a song I wrote bounce of the walls of a strangers life. Because of the love that we have for the audience that is hungry and straining for a tasty groove to free them from the effects of going down that dark road with us. Because of the love we have playing that groove. And because we sure as hell don’t do it for the money, so we must do it for the love.

And because of the love we have for each other on stage. A slow, earned trust. And because of the love we have for life, for living, for getting up in the morning.

This is a love story that Ian Mackenzie has caught. A 25 minute visual poem carved from umpteen hours of footage after he and a small crew followed us on the road last year and captured some ephemera again, conducted interviews again…the same questions but with different answers. This is not a show reel, but a glimpse into the mechanics of the thing. And if he were to train a camera on us again and asked those questions again, we would have different answers again for him because we keep learning about this thing. The Nights of Grief & Mystery is an alive thing now.

Pretty high fallutin’ words, you say. Yeah. Probably. I’ve stopped being perplexed by life and have settled into the reality that, at the age of 55, I might know a thing or two. I’ve grown tired of pretending I don’t. So here I am on a plane with Stephen, Lisa, and Colleen, a few moments out from Reykjavik, flying east into the sun and so there was no real night for us. We will land, bleary, rent the van, gather the gear, and play in a city, try to sleep, play in a town, and then to the edge of the world to play in a 1000 year old village that is dying.  For the love of the thing.

Watch Ian’s movie.

gh

Me vs St.David: Round 2

When I first stepped into this cathedral in Wales a couple years ago, I was more than a little undone by the 1500+ year story of the place. When Christianity started to move into this part of the world, it often set up shop near or on sites that the more local gods already inhabited…places that were already considered sacred by the locals. St. David’s has our man setting up shop in 500AD or so. The building convulses a few times (conquerors, fire, raiders, an earthquake) but much of the material is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old.

That is a lot of memory in that old stone and wood.

Places like this were mostly about wielding power. Have you ever seen the Welsh coast?? The whole thing is a cathedral and the very last thing one would need in a place like this is a building that god purportedly lives in.

So, to me these places are full of sadness and impotency and I’m sure all us visitors are wading hip-deep through old prayers that were sighed upwards toward the heavens only to be blocked by the cathedral ceilings and fall back to the stone floors. Not to mention the garden variety bad stuff that goes along with places and people of power. All this can make a walk-through more than a little intense, if you’re so inclined.

I am so inclined, so this time I kept my guard up, kept my hands in my pockets, and kept my distance from the truth of the place. I became a tourist. A tourist with a mission: to take a Vain+Alone shot.

London Night 2

Stephen insisted it was a punk club. We did sort of roar out of the gate and then careen off the tracks, which is kind of punk. And the room was underground. And the air was close and it was hot. And it was a black box.

So I guess all that adds up to sort of punk. In fact, the room was part of a local arts organization. Pretty tame stuff.

We were to have played in Canterbury but the host there became ill and it fell on Justin’s shoulders to find us a room to play so we opted to do a second night in London. By this point, Justin’s shoulders were already chock full of other things but he took it on anyway and, in the end, the joint was full.

Learning to love the Soundman…is easy.

When I started out with The Stickpeople a million years ago, I had a soundman, Leslie Charbon. He was a part of the band. It was a luxury, something I learned when I started touring without him. Every night became a crapshoot, and chances were that the more competent the person sounded over the phone in the days/weeks leading up to landing at their venue, the bigger the gamble when it came to showtime and the more disappointed I would be. Sometimes it would feel like yelling into the wind for two hours.

As the band has grown for the Nights of Grief & Mystery, it has become clear that we need a sound person, so for this tour we bit the bullet and hired Joe Meekums. I had long forgotten the impact on stage of knowing that shit was being handled out front, that we had a co-conspirator out there with a vested interest in helping us get to where we so deeply want to go every Night we do this.

I am (we are) indebted to Joe (quite literally) for being reminded that the words, lyrics, melodies, grace notes, subtleties, silences and roars are all worth being heard out there in the rooms we play.

Thank you, Joe.