On the Road with Wassabi Collective
Sat. 8.15.03 10:45 PM
The Rivoli, Toronto, Ontario
The Wassabi Collective playing here tonight. I’ve heard a buzz around them lately but I know only that they are from Victoria, British Columbia, and that they are not to be missed.
The crowd waiting for them at the Rivoli is dreadier and hippier than usual. Over there is Sarah, a lovely red-dreaded pixie with sparkles on her face that I usually see at Toronto shows. By the stage are some incredibly beautiful half-naked girls, swinging poi with abandon.
Finally the band appears. To my Toronto eyes, their look is pure British Columbia – the boys are shirtless, the whole band is shoeless, and two of them have dreadlocks.
Melissa, the lead vocalist and conga player, has straight short blonde hair and a lovely elvin face with piercing blue eyes. As she plays the congas and sings she looks up to the heavens, transcendent in her groove. Her voice sounds like a mix between PJ Harvey, Petula Clark, Siouxise Sioux, and Macy Grey.
Jeremy, on guitar, is a beautiful youth with blond hair and smooth skin. On drums is Stephen, an intense man of Portuguese descent with a dreaded topknot and intelligent brown eyes. His eyes roam the first rows like a searchlight, looking deeply into the eyes of the capering dancers. At the back of the stage is 36-year-old Wassabi founder and bassist Scott, grinning like Puck. He has waist length dreads, pale Scottish skin and freckles; his glasses are slightly askew on his face.
The music is polyrhythmic, hypnotic, and percussive, leaving the entire room bouncing off the walls. The insistent groove has nobody standing still. The set is relentless and leaves everybody dripping and screaming for more.
The show is over, and the bar staff has just taken away beers that were bought by fans and placed on the stage as offerings under Melissa’s congas. Melissa and I chew the offending waiter out. I tell him it’s just not rock n roll to take away the bands’ beer. He says rules are rules.
The band is on their way to a gig the next night in Hamilton. Their bus has broken down and they need help getting their gear out of the club. We put together a strategy to help them.
It comes up that I need a drive to Nova Scotia for the upcoming Evolve Festival. They offer to take me with them on their bus the day after Hamilton.
8.18.03 2:30 PM
Marche Parking Lot
I get out of my taxi in a parking lot at York Mills and Don Mills in Toronto, and see a full size school bus, painted with red accents on the outside, with Wassabi Collective written along the side. As I approach, Jeremy goes whizzing by on a skateboard, towheaded and shirtless.
Stephen and Scott are playing chess on board. The inside of the bus is as homey and cozy, with a comfortable eating table, colored fabrics hung from the windows and futon bunks built in all over. As the bus pulls out of the parking lot, I fall immediately into a deep sleep. I wake up about five hours later in Quebec, past Montreal. The band’s road manager, Glenn, is at the wheel, sporting 1973 sideburns and mirrored rock n roll shades. Melissa is asleep and curled up with her dog, Dana, in the spoon position. Jeremy is reading an Alan Watts book. I talk to him for a while about Watts, and Western approaches to Zen, and about how one of his books changed my life when I was nineteen. Jeremy has beautiful green eyes, and a lovely, affectionate, puppy-like quality.
Along the ceiling are posters of Canadian jam bands, and a beautiful poster print of Sunshine Coast visionary artist Luke Brown, who I met at the Om Festival earlier this summer.
Over the afternoon and into the evening, we fall in and out of sleep, munch on organic wraps, and discuss philosophy and music. There is no sound system on the bus; instead, Stephen occasionally picks up and plays his guitar, weaving seamlessly in and out of Beatles, Phish and Dead tunes. He gets me to do a vocal jam on the electric lead guitar parts of the Phish tunes. At one point a nice match is found between the chords of Mother Nature’s Son and Waste.
8.19.03 1:00 AM
Rest Stop, Quebec
We’re stopped at the side of the road, somewhere in rural Quebec. Melissa and Jeremy are doing loops of the parking lot on their skateboards. The rest of us take turns on the skateboard, smoke cigarettes and throw a tennis ball for Dana, who is a "fetch junkie" after being confined on the bus for hours. Mars glows steadily in the sky, never far from the moon, a perennial summer friend.
Somewhere in Quebec along the Maine border
I am sitting on a cooler keeping Scott company at the front of the bus as he drives. We are in Quebec but close to the New Brunswick border. The route we are on is in fact the same route that I took to get to the Phish IT festival three weeks before. The Trans-Canada Highway in this spot wraps for hours and hours around the border with Maine. Scott is telling me about the history of the band, how they started, where they’ve been. Suddenly he slams on the brakes, as there are two men hitchhiking at the side of the road, holding a sign that says "NOUVEAU BRUNSWICK"
I hop off the bus to talk to them with the idea that they are probably French speaking. Turns out they are Josh and Ray, two young American film-makers from Texas and Washington State, who have been hitching across Canada with no fixed itinerary. They have been standing there waiting for a ride for hours. As they make themselves comfortable on the roomy bus, the cool wind comes through the windows, and they are quite blown away by their luck. We invite them to come with us to the gig in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and after that, to the Evolve festival.
The Tidal Pool St. Andrews, NB
This quiet picturesque town is on the Atlantic Ocean, right across the border with Maine. The venue is called the Tidal Pool. Against all probability, Wassabi, who hail from Victoria B.C., have a readymade fan base here. The folks are streaming in, and the house is shortly full. Somebody informs me that the local soccer club has just won a tournament against the American team from across the border, and that the town is on fire. Cars are honking outside on Main Street. I help Jen, Wassabi friend and merchandise girl, set up the table on the side, with twinkling Christmas lights and a lovely folded tapestry. We set up stickers, CDs and some rock and roll bracelets handmade by Melissa. Jen doesn’t feel well for a while because of the smoky venue, so I sit on a stool behind the table, dancing in my chair, and chat with the folks who come up to the table. The CDs and stickers fly off the table and at one point the soccer team members show up. Their trophy bobs up and down in the middle of the crowded floor, synched up with the insistent Wassabi beat.
The show is over, Melissa is exhausted, and we have a B&B down the street. The others take off in the bus to go to a late night party at a beautiful farm a few miles away, and Melissa and Dana and I walk a few blocks to the bed and breakfast. It’s a beautiful old house called Salty Towers run by a bearded environmentalist named Jamie. He welcomes us and gives us a tour of the place, which was a private house and then an inn over its 150 odd years. Melissa immediately asks who the ghost is and Jamie tells her it’s the woman who lived here for 90 years, whose father was a sea captain. Melissa wants to sleep on another floor, where there is a room with an in-suite bathroom. I stay with her, make sure she’s comfortable. I tell her she’s a rock star and I’m her handmaiden that night. We agree that all female rock stars should have female attendants instead of road managers.
8.20.03 1:00 PM
Outside St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick
We are on our way to the next gig in Halifax, but the bus has broken down just outside of town. It appears to be draining propane, the stuff on which it runs. Various friends of the bands come up from St. Andrew’s and hang out with us on the grass in front of a local farm while we wait for the tow truck. Melissa cuts Ray’s hair, Stephen consults his Mayan calendars and books and pronounces me a Blue Galactic Knight, we lay about on the grass and tell stories and smoke joints thick with resin. Nobody is particularly stressed; Melissa is meditating on manifesting the gig, which is a pre-Evolve party featuring four West Coast bands. Either we will make it or we will not.
8.20.03 11:00 PM
Moncton, New Brunswick
We have missed the Halifax gig, and have arrived instead in Moncton, which is Jeremy’s hometown. The band is disappointed but philosophical. We park the bus by the railroad tracks and walk into town onto Main Street. A raucous metal band is playing at the Doc Dylan’s club, where Glenn and Scott are headed to ensure that another gig will be waiting for them the following week after Evolve.
As Jeremy rounds the corner onto Main Street, several local girls go bombing into his arms. He is the prodigal son, the young rock star returned home. The air is peppered with rapid chiac, the local Acadian dialect which combines English and French. "Ca fait long time que j’t‘ai vu, man", I overhear.
The waiter approaches us and tells us that the owner of the club is apparently recalcitrant and drunk. He doesn’t want to sign the contract for Wassabi to play the following week, and for no good reason. The waiter, a Wassabi fan, is ready to quit over it. Melissa and I take the contract and approach the owner alone, with sweet smiles. We return five minutes later with the signed contract, triumphant.
8.21.03 5:00 PM
Near Antigonish, Nova Scotia
We’re approaching the festival now. The country here is stunning, reminiscent of Ireland, with humble saltbox houses dotted along the coast and emerald green farmland spread out against a cobalt blue sky. Wassabi is scheduled to go on first on the main stage, and Stephen is working on a dedication to open the festival. His speech includes a welcome to the four directions. From the East, he calls on the bald eagle, flying in from the Land of the Rising Sun; from the South, a phoenix rising; from the West, a grizzly bear; and from the North, a howling wolf, solitary and introspective.
He reads it to me and considers adding a line or two, but all of us agree that the dedication is beautiful just the way it is.
Evolve4 Festival Antigonish, NS
As we drive the last few miles east into the festival grounds, a bald eagle appears directly in front of us, flying out of the east, and sails past the bus. It’s one of those moments; astounding and yet perfectly normal. We all gaze at it in silence.
Wassabi is playing on the main stage, to an audience of about three thousand. Jen and another girl, Lolita, have been body-painted by Melissa, and they dance, frenetic and beautiful, to the band’s rhythms. Jen swings her poi and Lolita, naked from the waist up and painted in red and blue, shakes her body in ecstatic union with the beats. Over the drums, Stephen calls for the crowd to reflect on the congregation of souls celebrating music and awareness of the Earth’s precious place in our lives. Over the barn where the band is playing, a huge bright sunflower is affixed, with a galaxy painted in its center; this is Evolve’s logo. As the crowd builds to a frenzy, Stephen has even the most preppy and cynical of the crowd yelling in unison;
Nearby the hitchhikers Josh and Ray dance in ecstasy. They are sporting artist laminates, as their recently completed film has been given a screening spot at the festival. They are having the time of their lives. The wind continues to build and the air is filled with the finest mist, but no drops fall.
Melissa dances behind her congas and adds touch-sensitive samples to the musical mix from her stand-up sampling console.
Finally the band finishes on one triumphant note. The crowd exhales as one, "ahhhhh" and the cheers from the crowd rise into the dark and starless sky.
I help the band load their gear back onto the bus. I’m Wassabi’s bitch, Melissa and I explain to standers-by. We settle back on to the bus briefly; the band is happy with their set. It’s time to relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend with friends, old and new. As we make our way across the festival grounds, I see another eagle, circling majestically several times over Tent City, then flying out to the West.