Memo From the Touring Desk: Slippery People In Special Cars (The Jambands.com Tour)
June 2, 1999 – Theater Of The Living Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A searingly hot day, but they all were. Several train rides in modern, air conditioned cars kept things comfortable until I stepped into the late afternoon Philadelphia heat. The 14 block walk to the TLA did not sound inviting, so I buckled up, wussed out, and caught myself a cab — proving once again my ignorance of Philadelphia… I hailed it going in the wrong direction. Moments later, I walked into the TLA as viperHouse was setting up on stage for their soundcheck. A small group of people milled in the back half of the room. One of them, a small nervous-appearing man, looked vaguely familiar. With a few days of beard growth and a ragged pair of blue Cons, I took him – correctly – to be JamBands.com editor and founder Dean Budnick, whom I was familiar with only through the tiny bio pic on the back cover of “the Phishing Manual” and an all-too-brief meeting at the first JamBands.com show, a two set throwdown affair hosted by the Disco Biscuits at the Wetlands in October.
Dean was everywhere while people prepared for the show. I stationed myself in the lobby of the place, an old converted movie theater, to set up and man the JamBands.com merch table. Dean bounced in between the lobby, the performance area, and countless other locales that I wasn’t privy to. At one point, a familiar looking bass player, accompanied by a stately looking Southern gentleman decked out in a Hawaiian shirt arrived. I’d heard rumors of their presence, but it had escaped my mind. Oteil Burbridge and Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band were in the hizzow. They, like Dean, would become completely and totally ubiquitous over the course of the next few days — both onstage and off.
After setting up tee-shirt displays, I sat down behind the table… my first free moment in the venue since I had arrived there. I looked around. Doors would be open soon. When the doors opened, people would come in. When people came in, a band would play. When a band played, there would be music. Music. In the hullabaloo of getting stuff ready, it had honestly slipped my mind that all of this was actually gearing towards a show. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many times again, but so much work goes into setting up an environment where musicians can help produce a transcendent experience. There is no better example of this, perhaps, than the ordeal of the Slip on this particular night.
Four bands were booked to play the TLA on that Wednesday night, in potential stage order: the Slip, the Recipe, Percy Hill, and viperHouse. By the time the doors had opened, the Slip still hadn’t arrived. There’d been a phone call earlier, from the band, taken down by an employee of the club — they were stuck somewhere in New York. Traffic or something. By the time doors opened, they were still nowhere in sight — and they were supposed to be on stage and playing within a half an hour. The Recipe started when the Slip was supposed to on the theory that, when the Slip showed up, they could just be, uh, slid right into a future time slot. There seemed to be some initial resistance from TLA management — but, for the moment, it was all theoretical. That would be conquered later, hopefully.
Shortly, another familiar bass player walked through the door — Marc “Brownie” Brownstein from Philly’s own the Disco Biscuits. He popped his head in the door to the stage area. He walked over to me, greeted me, and posed what was now the question of the night: “Yo, where the fuck is the Slip?” I told him. “Shit,” he said, and scratched his dome. “Do you think they’ll go on anytime soon?” I shrugged in reply. “I’ll be back,” he said.
Before he returned, though, the Slip arrived, wandering raggled, knackered, and generally confused through the front door of the TLA. The confused part wasn’t unique to them. Nobody was quite sure what was to happen to their set that night. It should be noted that the Slip was the only band on the bill that I was familiar with. After witnessing a sparkling four hour performance at Oberlin a month earlier, seeing the band turn in an impressive early afternoon set at the All Good the week before, and listening to their excellent debut CD “From The Gecko” on the way to Philly, I was considerably amped for their set — intending to have someone cover for me at the merch table while they played. The folks at the TLA did not share in my – and everybody else’s – enthusiasm, it seemed. In the end though, despite some resistance from the theater manager the Slip played, courtesy of a mysterious phone call from Butch Trucks to the powers that be.
The Slip’s set was wedged in between outings by Percy Hill and viperHouse. When the Providence-based trio finally took the stage, however, they were augmented by two additional musicians — Oteil and Butch. In anticipation of what was coming, Percy Hill’s merch dude graciously covered for me and I bolted into the venue proper, sliding into a spot in front of the stage next to Dean moments after the band launched into Wolof. The Slip and their music seemed perfectly tailored for the evening’s – and the tour’s, at least from my perspective – events. All three members of the band – Andrew Barr (drums and percussion), Brad Barr (guitar and vocals), and Marc Friedman (electric bass) – studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, steeping themselves in the technical and theoretical aspects of music. Yet, their songs, often with tightly constructed heads, often glide effortlessly into formlessness — into a seething chaos that cannot be taught.
On this night, that was once again the case. The band, with Oteil and Butch keeping pace, swam through gloriously uncharted waters, a bubbling swamp — occasionally surfacing as Marc returned to the Wolof bassline. Personally, as the (ultimately) 25-minute jam wound on, the head of the song began to symbolize something close to all of the bureaucratic bullshit that had to be dispensed with before the band could even get on stage. It brought me back to the idea of structure, of a scientific experiment. I thought of what happened to Eddie Jessup, William Hurt’s character in the Ken Russell film “Altered States”, which I had watched earlier in the week with my friend Matt — in an isolation tank, under strict scientific guidelines, Hurt’s character regressed to the pure formlessness of human existence. Under the hot lights of the TLA, on a stage littered with precisely plugged wires, carefully aligned microphones, and tweaked dials, the Slip regressed.
That night, sleeping under a table in an apartment somewhere in Philadelphia, I reconstituted.
June 3, 1999 — Recher Theater, Towson, Maryland
I drifted slowly into consciousness the next morning, hearing fragments of the night before — a few minutes of the Slip’s set would fade up and then disappear, a little bit of viperHouse, then the same bit… sounding a little bit different. I had crashed out at the apartment of one of the folks from Live Archives — a self-described group of expatriates from Rykodisc who had split off to found their own record company devoted to live releases. They had recorded the previous night’s show on no less than four separate microphones — plus a board feed, I think. They spent the morning comparing notes and tapes to see whose tapes sounded fuller, richer, livelier… better. It should be noted that the Live Archives crew was along for the ride, for the whole tour, taping all of the gigs in preparations for a JamBands.com compilation disc intended to be released later this summer. If anywhere near all of the best performances I witnessed during my four nights of tour make it onto the CD, it’s gonna be one helluva disc.
After a morning of cruising the streets near the apartment, we crammed five into a car and headed down to Towson. Driving through the hip, collegiate-looking streets, we looked out for a club… or something. None of us had ever been to the Recher. It took a moment to register when we finally saw it, but finally came upon a large old-style theater marquee that read, in big friendly letters: “TONIGHT: the Disco Biscuits”. Like many places around the country – including the TLA – the Recher began life as a movie theater. Inside the venue, one can turn around, look at the wall in the back of the room, and see the projection booth. The seats are, of course, gone now — made way for ample dancing room. Still, walking through the front door, I almost expected to small popcorn as I entered the performance space. The venue did have a nice concession stand, though, from which I later purchased my tasty, albeit somewhat pricey, dinner. Seeing shows in buildings that are icons of a bygone era provides a host of interesting contrasts. It’s a whole different kind of entertainment.
The bill that night, in order, was Jiggle the Handle, the Slip, Moon Boot Lover, Percy Hill, and the Disco Biscuits. Inside, and in the loading area just outside the side door to the theater, band members milled about socializing. Again, Dean, Butch, and Oteil seemed to be omniscient. Members of the Walther Productions crew wandered around, helping everything to run smoothly. Weeks earlier, at the All Good, the Disco Biscuits set was unfortunately canceled due to the collapse of onstage lighting rig. The Recher offered three dollars off at the door for anybody who presented an All Good ticket stub. I soon discovered that Walther Productions even had employees paid specifically to work the merch table. How nice for me! I got to wander around and enjoy the show.
When Jiggle the Handle took the stage, shortly after doors, the bulk of the people inside seemed to be members of various bands or their respective crews. Jiggle plowed through a tightly played 45-minute set. Most were afraid to cross the boundary into the area directly in front of the stage. As a result, the dance floor seemed to be a moat between the band and the crowd.
An interlude: As I was writing the above section, I was interrupted by a phone call from fellow JamBands columnist Carol Wade, who wrote a similar tour journal for Dupree’s Diamond News about the first incarnation of the Merry Danksters, whose debut tour was held exactly two years previous to the JamBands.com festivities. She sympathized with me. “Tour journals are impossible to edit. Everything that happened seems significant… to you, anyway. Like… like that squirrel you saw… it means something…”
“Yeah,” I said. “Somehow the squirrel is symbolic of the whole tour…”
“...the squirrel shook his tail…”
“...and it was symbolic of Oteil shaking his rump on the stage.”