We leave Ohio and I start to get those flashbacks of what it was like a handful of years ago when I didn’t know anything and was just happy to be poor and in a van and seeing cities I hadn’t ever seen, some cut rate Marco Polo of the Millennials, singing sad songs and drinking PBR in identical dive bars across a country that didn’t much care one way or another.
I’m not delusional now either: I still know only one or two things, and mostly people still don’t care that much. Poverty is relative. The van is the same van. But we’ve learned a lot about building better shows and we’ve built some regional word-of-mouth groundswell in the Midwest, and so it was strange to be on tour for two weeks in the familiarly warm middle of the country where we didn’t really feel like we were on tour so much.
That changed pretty quickly in New York. Monday was a show at a theatre in Syracuse, smack dab between two empty college campuses with an 1100-person capacity. I told the venue we probably shouldn’t take the date—we don’t know anybody upstate—but they assured me it’d be fine if I booked some locals. I booked some locals. It wasn’t fine. But Adam met a cool old vet on oxygen with braids in his beard and we got him on the list, we were making friends. We met a dude who worked there, Wes, who kindly offered his living room. His tortoise woke us bright and early, banging on his terrarium and making way more noise than you ever thought a tortoise was capable of.
Then Buffalo was a little better. Mohawk Place is a sweet dive bar on a good strip. I walked around the city watching the sun decline in the reflection of the buildings’ windows and I’ll be danged if I didn’t run into that same old vet, sitting outside a different club in a different city with different oxygen tanks. He was sober and offered me cookies and I told him, you’ll be on our list anywhere we play, Joe.
Buffalo to Philly was a haul. Adam and I explored the city by foot for a while. Ever since we quit smoking, it’s weird to be at a venue in between loadin and show time—you feel like you should be doing something, but there’s nothing to do. So I’ve taken to rambling around whatever boro, picking up vibes and watching the people in their respective urban lives, so different from my small town in south Florida and my not-really-a-college town in Indiana. There were some great bands on that bill, one that sounded like something straight out of True Detective and one that featured a pretty girl and a slide guitar. I got to drink a few beers with Kyle, the guy behind IndieOnTheMove, the site responsible for almost singlehandedly enabling our touring career. He bought them, which seemed very backward to me. Then we left the city, headed Brooklyn way, and found a quaint little copse of trees along Cooper River in Cherry Hill, NJ, where we slung hammocks and ate trail mix and slept to the sound of cicadas and woke to an eruption of polyphonic birdsong littering the canopy overhead.
It’s not all romantic: we were equally as excited about the Taco Bell down the street. Then we sat in a cool little coffee roastery where I caught up on inboxes, the boys dutifully sent press releases, and Adam played with a little tyke who offered up his toy trucks in a steam of babble and trust that only children have and aren’t allowed to keep very long.
I’ll tell you where we didn’t eat Taco Bell though: New York City. I once wrote a hateful little poem called, “To Every Empty Room in Brooklyn,” and the sentiment still stands a little. I don’t care how trendy the room is, I haven’t played a good show in BK yet. But that might change next time, because we played with an excellent band called DizeeChroma with whom we’re already scheming show trades for later in the year. My old pal from Florida days, Sarah, lives in Long Island City. I met her at an Assemblies of God church where I used to work when the pastor and his wife and actually just the whole church tried setting us up, but she’s become a dear friend since, and that was reflected in the message she sent met after leaving for work in the morning: come anytime, use our towels, drink my whiskey, and adventure on.
The wooden floor in the little box of a living room wasn’t the most comfortable ever, but what really killed us was the crushing humidity of late May in New York City with the windows open. About six in the morning, I left the boys sleeping on makeshift palettes in their underwear and set out to get my fix of the city. Bagel deli in one direction and coffeeshop in the other. Trying to find my way to the taller buildings and realizing they’re farther than they look. Then I had a vision of every greasy homeless dude I’d ever seen on a subway platform, so I grabbed the Guild out of Old Lady Science and headed down to the E Train where I sat for over two hours, lazily singing Beatles covers or whatever else came to my head, watching the sleek shoes of businesspeople headed into Manhattan, old Indian ladies in traditional dress, little kids tossing in quarters, gorgeous girls in their own worlds, everything that makes me love New York even though it’s hard. And I made enough money to buy some new jeans after ripping the crotch out of mine, climbing a tree the day before.
Today I got to show the boys how beautiful Vermont is. We’ve got the weekend in Burlington, where the people are what the people in Portland and Austin and Williamsburg are only pretending to be. They have old books because there are no new book chains. They wear flannel and beanies because it’s cold. They live in cabins with no electricity, not because they’re writing their new novel in an MFA program, but because, man, those particular mountains haven’t been marred by power lines yet. We’re pulling in to the bar now, and I’m complaining about Adam’s music, and he’s trying to push me out of the shotgun side of the car for it.
Come see us sometime this summer. That’s all I’ve got.
That day we left Milwaukee was some Mad Max: Fury Road type business, just with less desert and less Charlize Theron. So actually not really like Mad Max at all, except that we had a lot of serious driving to do. And Adam grunts like Tom Hardy instead of talking.
(This is a long post. Strap yourselves in if you’re not one of our moms.)
We played Bremen Cafe in rainy Wisco and got about four hours of sleep before our 5:30am departure for home, where we were on the 1pm Hotel Tango stage of the Virginia Avenue Folk Fest. VAFF featured Kopecky, Joe Pug, and Charlie Parr, as well as some of our personal road pals like Motherfolk, Von Strantz, Gypsy Moonshine…hell of a lineup. Unfortunately for us, we had to blaze in and blaze out—we grabbed burgers and veggie burgers alike along the canal in SoBro with a handful of our loved ones, then marathoned back up to Jackson, MI, where we played at our oldest Michigan mainstay, the Bifferhaus Brewing Co., where Terry never lets your ceramic mug empty all the way. A wild-eyed old dude videotaped our whole performance with some kind of makeshift phone in a box, duct-taped up like he was warding off alien mind-readers, all the while mumbling off numerics of video resolutions that we figured were probably made up.
Our day off: it snows in May. I cry at a baptism service because the symbolism wrecks me. We watch Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors. We drive back to Grand Rapids to smash a 30-rack with Jonny Carroll and friends, shoveling down vegetarian pasta and engraining ourselves heavily in a debate about the state and merits of pop music.
The next day, our friend Ricky took us out to Rosy Mound in Grand Haven, an idyllic little beach town, where we hiked up the backdune forest and played along the coast of Lake Michigan. That night took us to Lightfast Coffee Bar, a hip little startup with a listening room vibe, where Jonny hosted us and The Crane Wives for a beautifully attentive audience, concretizing Grand Rapids as a staple for our future routes, if only for how many people in flannel shirts bought our vinyl or whatever.
We had one more night of carousing with Carroll and co. over in Lansing at the Avenue Cafe alongside another MI friend-band, Olivia Mainville & the Aquatic Troupe, where the weather started to feel like summer and our friend Doug let us stay in his house that was way too clean for our sweaty selves, before we headed down to the Buckeye state.
Columbus has become another one of our favorite cities and folks really came out of the woodwork to make our show at Spacebar a memorable one. Their trivia night went over time, so we found ourselves battling it out with a bunch of aggressive nerds. (Oh yeah, we totally won one because Jason came up with, “My Big Fat Fleek Wedding” in a pun-based romantic comedy category.) We stayed with my old cellist, Topsy, and her husband Chris (suh dude?,) and we rousted about with their dog, Argo. We played in the lake at Hoover Dam and hammocked in blooming summer, hiding from the high school girls who walked the trail because we were in boxer shorts and not trying to get arrested.
I turned 25 in Akron. My friend Noel lives in Cuyahoga Falls, and he helped curate an exquisite five-star day. We had Indian food, my band members bought me used books on Kerouac and Brautigan, and we hiked the Gorge Metropolitan Park, free-climbing the limestone ledges, building cairns, skipping rocks, and trespassing on a sickeningly high catwalk beneath the bridge that crossed the river. The show in Akron was a full rock show. I’ve never had actual fog envelope me during “Cave of Clouds.” That was pretty weird. But the rest of it was electric. And my friend Tammy made us a casserole that lasted about thirty seconds. Getting older is not as bad as I’ve always thought it would be.
Adam is from Youngstown—if you’ve ever talked to him for five seconds, you know this—and so we usually slay there. Suzie’s is always a good time. Our friend Gator is the only man I’ve ever hugged who makes me feel like a toddler. Uncle Jay is the only horse trader I’m friends with so far. And Mrs. Shuntich cooks the crap out of pierogis/manicotti/salmon/pot roast/strawberry pie/mashed potatoes/spice cake/you get the point by now, so we gained back all the weight we’d lost on the road so far. And Y-town has, oddly, some of my favorite falafel in the world, right out of a weird convenient store in a downtown strip. We spent our next (and last) day off swinging from a 30+ foot high rope swing in the neighbor’s lake and hanging out a bonfire straight out a bro-country song where Adam killed the truck battery playing country radio and getting his cheeks kissed by hometown girls in the headlights.
We’re a week or so past Youngstown now, into stranger country and back in belt-tightening mode, eating cold soup out of cans and cursing the toll booths. But it feels like tour, and I’m tired and I’m really happy.