Tour Diary Part 3
Back into the Rockies
Tuesday, August 9
Los Angeles, CA
I wake in the dark confines of my bunk under the impression that I’ve slept well. I labor under this delusion for a couple hours before I realize that this is not the case. Again, this is the spell of the bus bunk — one never knows how well one sleeps. One only closes one’s eyes and prays. It didn’t help that the roads between Saratoga and Los Angeles are absolute garbage and we are all bumped around like so many balls in one of those bingo machines. It’s been over four years since I’ve experienced the degradations of bus-sleep; I’m not sure how I ever endured.
Actually, I know how I endured: the show! Those gleaming few hours at the end of the evening, when all the ailments and disappointments of the day are happily sluffed off. However, at the beginning of the day, when the sun creeps through the blinds of the bus windows and everybody is emerging from their bunks like so many haggard vampires, that moment can seem so very far away.
We are playing the Wiltern, a theater in Los Angeles that we have played in the past. It’s the first indoor show of the tour and, covid-paranoia aside, there’s some novelty in looking out into a darkened room rather than a sunny lawn. I move into one of the dressing rooms in the basement — they’ve definitely been renovated since last we were here — and brave the shower. I’ll give it a 7. My goal for the day? To track down a decent coffee making rig, an alternative to the Starbucks coffee pod robot that is our only mode currently — aside from Lizzy’s french press, which, hello: last I checked it’s not 1998 and I’m not living on Woodford Street in Missoula, Montana with five other people in a dumpy college house. Non merci.
The Machine Shop is fueled by paid subscribers. This one’s free, but there are a lot of goodies tucked away behind that paywall.
I walk down Wilshire to a place called Alchemy, which, we all decide, is just the sort of place where one could get a little portable grinder and a Hario V60. Alas, no dice. I did get a pour-over coffee and it was delicious.
We throw a few songs we haven’t rehearsed with Lizzy into the setlist; we run them at soundcheck: “A Beginning Song,” “Calamity Song,” and “Wrong Year.” I feel like we’re still at that spot where soundchecks are quickly consumed by rehearsal and troubleshooting. The Shebangers (as we call the pre-show party VIPs) are escorted into the theater and we regale them with — what — “Legionnaire’s Lament” and “June Hymn.” The r/decemberists subreddit moderator was there, her ticket gifted for her 18th birthday — go over there and say hello!
After dinner, John, Jenny, Funk, and I sit down to play the January session of Pandemic Legacy. We fail. The world is overrun with covert Soviet agents, infecting cities with a lab-designed virus. Alas. That puts us right up to showtime and we walk on stage to the wrong entrance music — our FOH (front of house) guy, Ross’s, slip-up. It’s all right; these days were using the Portsmouth Symfonia’s version of “In The Hall of the Mountain King,” and he just cued up a different song by them.
A word on opening music: the first “walk-on song” we ever used was the Soviet National Anthem. This was in the earlier days, when Russia was perhaps *less* of a divisive country run by a flagrant dickhole. It fit with the Soviet kitsch of our name and our general mien. It seemed funny at the time. Then it became clear that Putin was a despot and things had to change; we started using this version, the one that was performed for him whilst visiting Egypt. But even that, even that seemed too off-color with the level of global bullying the man was instigating. Somehow, somewhere, I read about the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra formed in the 1970s at the Portsmouth School of Art. Gavin Bryars was a founder; Brian Eno was one of its members. Their whole thing was to enlist performers who didn’t know how to play their instrument, and play the great works of the classical canon. I recommend their debut record; it’s on YouTube. We tried out several cuts before landing on “The Hall of the Mountain King,” and that’s what it’s been since — I dunno — 2018, maybe?
The Wiltern is packed to the rafters and everyone seems so cheered, it’s a bit infectious. I wouldn’t call it my *best* night on the tour so far — I manage more than my fair share of lyric slip-ups and clams — but it’s a treat to be back in this city that has been a friendly home to us since the early days. Highlight? Maybe it’s “Crane Wife 1 & 2” and “Severed,” the latter of which gets an extendo-jam. Did it overstay its welcome? Perhaps. But that’s the edge you have to find!1
We flee to the buses, to the comfort of our coffins, and the bus rolls onward toward Las Vegas.
Wednesday, August 11
Las Vegas, NV (day off)
This one is not technically a day off — it’s a “stopover.” A true day off is when you arrive in the a.m. of a day where there is no show and you’ll be staying in a hotel that evening. Not so today; we are in Las Vegas for perhaps 18 hours before we’re back on the bus and making our way to the next city. It can be a little strange; living in a hotel only for the day can feel a little counterintuitive.
But God, I cannot deal with Las Vegas. Apologies to people who live here, who love coming here, who get Las Vegas — I am not one of you. We’re staying at the Virgin Hotel. It’s just south of the strip. I traverse the carpeted hallways to my room, not sure whether I’m in an airport concourse or a megamall. Or just in Las Vegas.
Because of covid protocols, there’s little we can do. I do some writing, read my book, answer some emails, that kinda stuff. I swim (briefly) in the weird, shallow pool in the upper deck of the outside area, avoiding the lower deck, where a dozen women in white bikinis and yacht caps are galavanting, calf-deep, in the water.
No more to report; I reboard the bus at 10 pm and snuggle in for a couple episodes of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal. The bus rolls onward in the night.
Thursday, August 11
Salt Lake City, UT
One thing people may not know: you cannot poop on a tour bus. Pee to your heart’s content, but thou shall not do the other thing. When I explain this to people, in the off chance it should come up, which it sometimes does, they express disbelief. Inhumane! Undignified. What are you supposed to do when…etc? I’ll tell you what you’re supposed to do: figure it out. And, my dear Machinists, I have “figured it out” on more than one occasion in my long and storied career on the road. I won’t go into it, but it does involve sketchy toilets in industrial East Berlin at 4 a.m. while a rave in the neighboring former power station blares through the bathroom walls.
The Tonkatsu ramen I had for dinner is mayhaps a little on the rich side for my poor, delicate inner workings and I fear, around 2:30 a.m., that there may be some figuring out to do. False alarm. We arrive, safe and sound, in Salt Lake City.
We’re playing outdoors today at the Gallavan Center, part of the city’s Twilight Concert Series. We’ve played one of these before; last time it was free and every yahoo in greater SLC showed up. It was the only time there was a proper mosh pit at a Decemberists show. Tonight, it’s ticketed. Still kind of hoping for a pit.
There are thunderstorms in the area and the rain is intermittent throughout the day. I spend most of the afternoon in a panic about my voice, which feels a little dodgy — even after a day off. It’s not atypical for my voice to feel dodgy; in fact, it’s something to set your clock to. There’s always a moment on a tour — on every tour — where my voice feels like it’s been dragged through a river of gravel. 9/10 it recovers and it’s clear sailing from that point forward. Maybe not 9 out of 10; more like 7-8 times out of 10. One of those 2-3 times was the summer of 2018, where I spent weeks navigating a tour with failing vocal folds, only to lose my voice completely. It was honestly a traumatic experience. So now every whiff of voice strain sends my mind spiraling. Good times!
VIP is an intimate experience — maybe 40 people or so. We play “Rise To Me” and “Eli The Barrow Boy.” Someone comes rocking a freshly done tattoo of the tour logo with today’s date below it. This show better go off!
It does, finally, after a short delay as the crowd is pelted with rain and thunderstorms threaten. We take the stage in the last waves of rain; my voice feels okay — it feels better as the show goes on. Our setlist is a variation on one earlier from the tour — the crowd seems into it. A guy in the front row spends a good five songs with a note on his iPhone reading “MARINER’S REVENGE” and I just don’t have the heart to break it to him. He gets the idea eventually. Highlight of the show might’ve been “Sucker’s Prayer,” with the crowd hollering back in just the right places. Hearing a crowd of 5,000 people sing “I want to throw my body in the river and drown” can be a moving experience.
We exit the stage and head for the bus. My headphones fall from my bunk and promptly break. Onward to Denver.
Our current and perhaps forever record w/r/t extendo-jams is undoubtedly the 45 minutes we stretched out of that ambient/drone section in “California One/YABB.” This was at the MusicFestNW in….god, maybe 2003? Jenny left the stage in frustration (she’s not one for overlong drone jams) and our bassist at the time, Jesse Emerson, nearly blew out the PA running his bass direct through a fuzz pedal. We can be artfully difficult when we want to.