Tour Diary Part 6
Drama! Tension! Pharmaceuticals taken by the handful!
Friday, August 19
After some tussles with the hotel’s anemic AC system, I wake from a pretty restful night of sleep. It’s 10 am; the bus is picking up the band at noon, so I have a few moments to lie in bed and do the Wordle and start in on the Spelling Bee, my typical morning ritual. I make a mistake on the Wordle and I vocalize my first words of the day: “Oh fuck.” They come out as a raspy bleat. Oh fuck. I test the vocal folds again; they are definitely worse for wear, despite yesterday’s day off. I’ll have to see how they do as the day proceeds.
The bus is there when I leave the hotel. It drives the band over to the stage entrance of Massey Hall. This is hallowed ground, for sure. So many great bands and performers have tread the boards here, it’s always a little intimidating. We’ve only played here once before, but they’ve totally redone the backstage dressing rooms. Having taken a shower in the hotel room, I can’t rightly give Massey Hall’s showering facilities a grade. I have no doubt they’re top notch, though.
The few brief hours between our arrival at the venue and soundcheck vanish into the ether; I have a zoom conference with some creative partners on a project TBA. I read my book. I wander the whitewashed hallways of this underground backstage, aimlessly. We are finally called to the stage for soundcheck
I’m not singing during the soundcheck — we run through instrumental versions of a few songs. The Shebangers are ushered in and we offer them “As I Rise” and “Dear Avery,” two songs that are a light lift on the vocal folds. There’s no getting around it: my voice is in bad shape. :(
Management scares up a last minute zoom check in with my voice doctor back in Portland. Since there are only eight shows left in the tour, he gives me the green light to go nuclear on these fuckers. A pack of steroids has been sitting in the wardrobe case since Seattle, an emergency kit waiting for an emergency.
I decide to wait and see how the show goes before taking them; the show goes so-so. It’s weird — it used to be when my voice was strained, I’d lose high notes. These days, it’s the low ones that refuse to cooperate. Given a choice between the two, I suppose I prefer it that way. Losing control over the lower range is frustrating; losing the high notes can be soul-killing. We soldier on and the crowd is lovely, typical Canadian hospitality. The venue is gorgeous, and the place feels so shot through with history, but I’m too preoccupied with my voice to really be in the moment.
Feeling garbage-y about my voice gives me a chance to appreciate the contributions of my bandmates. Funk lays into his solos tonight, and the trade-offs between he and Jenny seem especially inspired and fluid. Lizzy kills on “Repaid” and our ever-trusty rhythm section in John and Nate manage to hold everything (relatively) in place.
At show end, I’m resigned: tomorrow morning it’s time to get ‘roided. Let’s do this.
Saturday, August 22
The border crossing back into the U.S. is painless — we hopped directly on to the bus after the show in Toronto and made it to the border by 12:30; by 1 a.m., I am entombed in my bunk. International BBC/Amazon licensing issues are in the rear-view mirror and I’m back in Venice with Sebastian and Charles (“the boys” as we all call them — y’know, me and Julia and Bridey and the gang). But only briefly; I soon fall asleep.
I wake at 6:30 a.m. I sit up in my bunk and disgorge six white pills from their foil encasings. I take them down as well as I can; I almost puke up the last one. I read my book, which is only getting more grotesque as it goes along, and fall back asleep. I wake up at 10:30; I can already feel the steroids doing their thing.
I’ve only once ever taken steroids for voice issues before. That was in the summer of 2018, when we had one more show to go of a two-night stand in Portland (or Troutdale, to be more specific — back at the Edgefield). I’d resisted taking them during those prior weeks of voice strain, hoping to avoid such an intense and potentially dangerous treatment. Finally, I relented. I spent the day in a kind of high-energy lather, not sure what to do with myself, feeling this wild electricity moving through my system. I could not speak a word that morning; by showtime, I was in full voice.
Today, we’re in an apple orchard in upstate New York. The Beak and Skiff I think it’s called? They’ve got a big, sloping field in the middle of the orchard and they’ve erected a stage there. The place is pastoral, laconic. I walk to the top of the hill, in the middle of the rows of apple trees, and find a wooden play structure. From the turret atop the structure, you can see the whole valley, all patchworked with farms and orchards and dozing barns. It’s a moment of real beauty; I take the slide back down to ground.
By late afternoon, I’m feeling that familiar electricity from the pills; I get John and Funk out of the bus to throw a baseball around. It’s pretty hot and humid, so we don’t last very long, but it does shake some of the energy out.
At soundcheck, it’s still very hot. Shades are put out on stage; all the gear is draped with heat blankets. We run through a few songs with just the instruments and then the Shebangers are allowed into the field. We play “As I Rise” and “Angel Won’t You Call Me.” I can only hope these folks, the ones who pay the premium for the VIP experience, dig the deep cuts. Because we have some deep, deep cuts and we are not afraid to play them. My voice is feeling dodgy, and I leave the stage a bit verklempt. Will the steroids do their thing? I’m not speaking at all today, so I briefly bring back the talk-to-speech app I had when I’d been on voice rest before. I have it set to the Australian voice, slightly slowed down, so it sounds like an Aussie after too many Fosters. “I’m all roided out,” my phone slurs, “More shrimp on the barbie, anyone?”
We play the June session of Pandemic Legacy; we manage only one objective before the board is overrun with incidents. Budget is ticked up; we move on to the next month.
We have an absurdly elaborate road case that unfolds into a stereo system and game table, but road life is not kind to record players — the cartridge on the turntable has been unusable for a few days and we manage to get a new one today. John spends the afternoon attaching and aligning the new cartridge. We give Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits a spin — “Jungle Love” emerges from the speakers, unblemished (aside from a few obligatory scratches).
The moment of judgement arrives: showtime. We walk out on to a beautiful sight: a throng of people, all the way up the hill to the apple trees, backed by a dramatic, thundercloud filled sky. Lightning arcs, distantly, between thunderheads as we play our first song, “Leslie Anne Levine.” My voice feels good; the low notes are still a bit gravelly, but after about thirty minutes of singing those start to even out and feel reliable. My relief is tangible; I thank the gods (or scientists) who invented ingestible steroids for these such occasions.
Those arcs of lightning, those thunderheads, seem to live on the horizon for most of the set, but about halfway through we feel an ominous buffeting wind coming over the stage. The sky, or what we can see of it in the dark, is glowering. A voice comes over our in-ear monitors; it’s Sami, our production manager. “We’re on weather warning for lightning,” she says. “It’s might start raining in the next ten minutes.” We plow on, cutting some of the extraneous bits short, just to get as much as the set in as we can. We beat the storm; the first raindrops start pelting as we leave the stage.
Bob and Helen, Carson’s parents, are there and I get to see them briefly after the show. They’ve brought rhubarb brownies for the gang. Then it’s off to the bus with a hope and a prayer for a decent night of sleep. Thankfully, I last about an episode and a half of Brideshead before I crash out. I dream of…nothing.
Sunday, August 21
The bus lurches, I wake. It’s 7:30. I sit up in my bunk and huff down the next course of steroids. I read my book for a moment before falling back asleep, waking again at 10:30. The steroids are jarring, but I’m relieved that I’ve been able to sleep. Everyone who’s ever took prednisone has told ghastly tales about staying up all night, cleaning their kitchens and things. I would prefer not to do that.
There is laundry in the venue, so I hustle off the bus with my bag, hoping to get a jump on the machines. The crew, always up earlier than the band, has beaten me to it, and I fall in line behind drum tech Kenny and monitor engineer Justin.
We’re playing The Roadrunner, another new venue that didn’t exist the last time we toured the states, and it takes me most of the day to put together that it’s named after the Modern Lovers song. It’s one of those Big Dumb Rock Clubs1, very similar to the Mission Ballroom in Denver, and there is plenty of room backstage for the band and crew to stretch out. The shower, as we will discuss later during the Shebang, is a solid 7.5-8; the bathroom scene is only brought low by the fact that they’ve decided to install black toilets, another common fixture in these Big Dumb Rock Clubs. I don’t know why people think black toilets are somehow, like, super rock ‘n’ roll, because they’re gross. No one wants to do their thing into the void of a black toilet. Leastways, I don’t. But I’m not very rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe The Kings of Leon really dig black toilets.
Hank, my elder son, has frantically been calling me. I finally get a moment to call him back, anticipating a crisis. No crisis: he has a writing prompt that he’s discovered on reddit (he is a well-traveled voyager of the seas of reddit) and he wants me to take a crack at it. This happens a lot; Hank is forever pitching me ideas for books and short stories. They’re mostly really good ideas — I wish he’d actually write them himself. I insist that he at least contribute to the prompt; he does and I take forty-five minutes and dash out a thousand words. I send the doc to him; this is his response (I’m in the blue word bubbles):
I finish my laundry just as we’re called for soundcheck. I’m nursing my voice still, unsure of what the steroids, at present, are up to, so we wordlessly run through a few songs and sounds. The Shebangers are ushered in; we play “After The Bombs,” and “My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist.” There’s a good amount of questions and we answer them the best we can; I’m still trying not to talk, but I can’t really help myself. There’s something sweet about connecting with the folks that come to these things. Also: the parent-of-autistics scene is hot in Boston; there are three of my brethren in the audience. Meanwhile my own autistic son is blowing me up — I can feel my phone vibrating in my pocket through the Q&A section — almost certainly wanting to know how my second draft is coming along.
Dinner is what they call a “buy out” in the biz — no catering tonight, but a runner grabs us Korean and Mediterranean food from nearby restaurants. Even though there is some analysis paralysis that comes along with choosing from the menu, it’s nice to have a respite from the ever-present chalmon.
We play the August session of Pandemic Legacy; we fail two objectives, but win one. At showtime, Jenny gives her pre-show prayer — an ever-changing, semi-Wiccan benediction/meditation — and we walk onstage. The house is full — which it has blessedly been nearly this whole tour. The amount of you coming out to shows, I have to say, is very affirming for an aging musician such as myself. We’d been gone for four years; had you forgotten us? Had you abandoned us? Turns out you hadn’t! It’s incredibly gratifying to know that we can still go on the road and play music and people will come out to see us. Genuinely.
The first notes of “The Infanta” rise from my throat and I know I will be okay tonight. Thank God for modern science.2 And only two days ago I was on the cusp of destruction. I am momentarily thrown by such a change in my vocal health; I miss a few words of the first line of the song.
The setlist is awfully upbeat tonight — maybe too much so, I think, as the show proceeds. Needed just one or two more down-tempo bits. An overly raucous setlist will always fly, though, at a standing-only BDRC, and the crowd is gracious and appreciative (except for the lady about five or six feet from the barrier who flips me a double bird just before our last song). We finish out the set with “I Was Meant For The Stage.” “Rusalka” is on the list, but as we gather before the encore, I worry that it’ll be too big a lift on my voice. I don’t want to get too ambitious. So we switch to the quieter, simpler “12/17/12” — a song that provides the set its much needed moment of calm. Then we get everyone singing “Sons & Daughters” and we heave ourselves off the stage, out of the venue, and on to the bus. Onward to New York!
Monday, August 22
New York, NY (day off)
We need not look out from out bunks to know we have arrived in New York City — the interstates and thruways of this area have their own peculiar language they telegraph through the bottom of the bus. “WELCOME (bump) TO (heave) NEW YORK (honk/screech/swerve), they say. Good morning, New York. I ride the floor of the bus like it’s an uncooperative surfboard, trying to get my things together for the transfer to the hotel. This will be what they call in the biz a “dump-and-go.” We are to be dropped quickly in front of the hotel; the bus will then promptly scuttle off to Secaucus to lay low for a while like the disreputable scion of some crime family. We won’t see the ol’ lug until after the show in Central Park on Tuesday night.
I move into my room and take in my digs. Pretty typical New York hotel fare, here. Great view of the neighboring wall. We’re staying in Midtown, which is where I was stationed last time I was here a few months ago, and it’s definitely not the most charming neighborhood in the city. I find my way to a deli and get a breakfast roll; I scarf it down at the desk in my room. Then it’s a lot of nothing: watching the finale of The Rehearsal, unpacking and processing my feelings about the finale of The Rehearsal, wading through Times Square to find a CVS for toiletry restocking, and then settling back down in the hotel for some emailing. I take a long nap.
At 6:45, I make my way uptown several blocks to have a quiet dinner by myself in one of those cute fake-ivied niches at Quality Bistro. I eat oysters and a bibb salad and a steak and brussels sprouts. I drink a glass of rosé and a glass of grenache. I have not been drinking that much on this tour and those two glasses of wine are enough to turn me into a kind of stumbling drunk, wandering down 6th Avenue like a true out-of-towner. Effects wear off once I’ve arrived at the hotel. I binge two and a half episodes of Brideshead Revisited: REMASTERED. I am lulled to sleep by the rhythmic rocking of the boat as Julia and Charles make their way along the deck, talking.
Oh, what will become of Sebastian?
I use this term endearingly. Big Dumb Rock Clubs are sometimes the nicest places to play in the world — The Anthem in D.C., The Lifestyles Pavilion (or whatever it’s called these days) in Columbus, OH, Brooklyn Steel in NYC and the O.G. BDRC: the 9:30 in D.C. — all fantastic Big Dumb Rock Clubs.
A sidenote: I am using these magic pills, these steroids, under strict direction from my voice doctor. Treating voice ailments with steroids is a dicey thing. I don’t quite understand their magic, but they basically erase inflammation. A common cause of laryngitis or vocal fold strain is inflammation of the vocal folds — but there can be other nasty things at play. There might be polyps or nodes in there, things which can get worse the more you sing on them. Steroids remove the inflammation; they don’t remove the nodes or polyps. My case is a pretty textbook case of vocal strain, so I should be good — but careless use of steroids when you’ve got underlying issues can cause really awful things, like hemorrhages.