Sorry this column is late, but I am just back from another road trip with my band Old #8. We were supposed to hit Chicago a few days ago, but our bus broke down and we spent three nights camping in an RV repair shop parking lot in Tallahassee. Not a bad place to be – there was even free Internet around (thanks, Tallahassee Community College, and thanks for the drinking water too), but I couldn’t work up the energy to hunker down on the column, although I did keep up with Phish setlists.
A lot has been written about the more sensational aspects of touring, and after this trip I could write some more. However, one of the hidden interests of touring is how it changes one’s relation to music. Being more or less on a desert island for a few weeks with a limited supply of CDs and the same bandmates each night, I find myself listening to everything differently.
As the drummer, I have been focusing on getting more intensity in our grooves. For a while there, I found myself pulling out some of my CDs and just listening to the tempo. I bought along a book about Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (one of my bandmates borrowed the book and ended up buying the CD for himself – that was nice), and a quote from Coltrane about the benefits of listening to a song focusing only on the bass, then on the lead instrument, and so forth motivated me.
There was one stretch of a few days where I was obsessed with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from this perspective. Before, my ears would drift between the melodies, Tweedy’s lyrics and whatnot. This time around, though, I found myself pulling out Glenn Kotche’s drum hooks in a few songs (the four-bar loop in "Heavy Metal Drummer" or the three or so different drum sounds on "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart") and digging John Stirratt’s John McVie-esque bass lines on "Kamera" (although, come to think of it, Fleetwood Mac might merit the same listening approach sometime). By the way, has there been a more arresting beginning to a recent CD than the intro of "I Am Trying"? Or perhaps that’s just the warped road perspective again.
Meanwhile, on stage, each night is as though I am playing these songs for the first time. A few years back, I asked for more of the lead guitar in the monitor at each show. These days, I want the rhythm guitar. One afternoon in Tallahassee someone had a Bela Fleck CD lying around at an auto shop (not the one where we stayed) and I read Fleck’s comment about the mandolin and rhythm guitar "sharing" the 16ths in a bluegrass band. A while back, I knew less about sharing the 16ths. Another day, Stop Making Sense was playing on a TV in a CD store where we stopped, and I remember one long memorable shot of Byrne swaying in a relentless groove while Chris Frantz works the same groove behind him. In other shots, the entire band is running in place – the pulse is coming from everyone. Each member needs to be hooked in.
There are other aspects of touring I tried to finetune as we went along – what to eat, where to go while waiting to go onstage, what music to listen to. (One night I got blissed-out with some Smile-era Beach Boys and it took a while to get the rock happening in our set.) Rereading interviews with the Dead and Phish, I realized that this is a continual process for each band – at least, each band that cares about getting closer to the core of music. It is not easy, and for a while I made the mistake of thinking it would be. However, the joy of being deep into a sweaty, flowing show is one I will remember as I head into a month off, back home in the Windy City.