Jogging in Glenfarne

I’ve been trying to keep my exercise regimen in tact on this tour, but some of the show locations have made it slightly inconvenient or embarrassing to go jogging.  Why I should be embarrassed at this age remains a mystery to me, but not a big concern, as it has not been a major deterrent.  I know myself to be more self-conscious in big cities, so when I heard that we were going to be stopping in a small village on our way from Dublin to Belfast, I took the opportunity.

      The town is called Glenfarne, slightly out of our way as it is in the far northeast of Ireland (the Republic of, not Northern), but we stopped there because several of our tour manager’s relatives are native residents.  He pointed me in the direction of his family’s farm, he and the rest of the band choosing the local watering hole as their temporary station.

     There was a fine mist in the air that eventually turned into rain, but at the offset it just seemed like small particles of water suspended in the air, like a transparent fog.  The first landmark I passed was the Rainbow Ballroom of Romance, a dance hall built ages ago by our tour manager’s grandfather.  I found out later they put old tires under the dance floor to give it the classic suspension.  At the ballroom I turned right, up the hill toward the town’s church, St. Mary’s.  As soon as I started heading up the hill my nose was filled with the scent of peat.  At first, the mild smell of it burning in stoves, and then as I got into the real farmland, the intensely pungent aroma of what had been harvested and bagged.  I was finally smelling in its fullness what I had tasted hints of in scotch.  A smell like nothing else, it is at the same time comforting and arresting.  Comforting because of its earthiness, arresting due to its strength.

     St. Mary’s is a quaint country church, simple as a pair of hands performing the old rhyme, “Here is the church, here is the steeple…”  At the corner of it the road makes a sharp left and levels out, revealing a brief flatland, occupied by several small farms.  For a while I was completely alone, but as I neared the next steep hill, I passed by a farmer walking up the road.  As I passed him, he turned and I said “Morning.”  “G’morning to ye, then,” he replied.  We seemed loud in the relative silence.

     More than half exhausted, I turned around at the foot of the next hill.  The farmer was gone and, save the barking dog and flock of sheep that bleated at me as I passed, I didn’t encounter another living soul until I had descended out of the smell of peat and reached the bus again.  Finding it empty, I hurriedly changed into my street clothes and met up with the others at the local pub, arriving just in time to have a pint of Guinness before our departure.  I had enjoyed Dublin, and found Belfast somewhat interesting as well, but that afternoon in Glenfarne is what I will think of when I think of Ireland.

The Bone Church

bonechurch7Between our gigs in Bratislava and Prague, our bus driver agreed to stop at a famous attraction in the town of Sedlec, Czech Republic.  The site was originally a very popular cemetery, its popularity due to the fact that Henry, the local abbot, sprinkled some dirt on the cemetery that he brought home with him from Golgotha.   During the years of the Bubonic Plague, it became incredibly popular.  Later when a church was built on the grounds, tens of thousands of skeletons had to be exhumed (some from mass graves) – the church was to function as an ossuary as well.  Apparently, the job of stacking the bones was given to a monk (unreliably said to have bad eyesight) who approached the task with an intense artistic zeal.

      bonechurch2He arranged some of the bones into immaculate piles, others into dramatic works of art.  Some are simple, more modest pieces, like the multiple garlands made of humeri and skulls.  Slightly more elaborate are the skull parfait decorations (pictured above) that line the main steps.  Above and beyond that there are, in the main room, an intricate and imposing coat of arms (pun most definitely intended) and perhaps his most famous work, a chandelier that is said to have at least one of every bone in the human body.  But it should be noted that the ossuary isn’t just the sum of these impressive constructions.  There are bones everywhere, and none of them is simply placed or piled.  Even the massive piles of bones that lurk in cages at the base of the main steps are painstakingly stacked into geometric, eye-pleasing mounds, much like expertly stacked wood piles.

     As it turns out, it’s possible that the lasting impression was mutual.  We were standing in front of the church reflecting and discussing, when the Google Earth car drove by.  Maybe the street view of the Sedlec ossuary shows a few haggard musicians standing in front of it – I’m the one with the ochre shorts and messed up hair.

Wheels Off

My new blog was going to start something like this: “Poland is a culturally unique country, and fiercely independent in this aspect.  It feels very much like Eastern Europe, but its proximity to Germany and the rest of Western Europe separates it from the deep eastern countries, making it a sort of ‘gateway’ country that shares significant aspects with both.”  I couldn’t go on.

     The first ten days of the tour were very organized and required a great deal of consciousness.  There is a certain amount of awareness required for air travel, and the splitting up of days makes them pass in a much more orderly fashion.  Once on the bus however, time has little meaning.  There are no days of the week, no time of day, no bedtime, no time at all.  Life is more about trying to stash enough water in you bunk so that you never run out.  It’s about violently seizing any opportunity to use the internet, repeatedly wondering what smells like hot dogs, and wishing that one guy didn’t sweat so profusely.  It is constantly searching for a toilet, hoarding food, and being awoken by other peoples’ bodily odors.  In short, the life of an animal.

     Accordingly, the tone of this blog is changed.  Some of the experiences I’ve had so far are noteworthy, but my thoughts about them are, for the most part, too boring to bother with.  Warsaw was most likely very interesting, but I was just uninterested.  The same goes for Dresden and Schweinfurt.  But just as life is different now, so are the moments of pleasure.  Now they are little vignettes, nothing to do with the usual places, sights or landmarks – they commonly happen at cafes, sitting silently, people-watching, enjoying a perfect temperature, looking upon nature, or just basking in quiet.

     Warsaw didn’t have any of those moments.  Neither did Dresden or Schweinfurt.  But in Villmar (a small German village) I was able to have a relaxing drink at an outdoor beer garden on the Lahn River.  It was a view that would make you want to paint if you didn’t already.  The sun was dropping and I was looking down the river, seated at one of its gentle turns.  The lengths of its banks were covered in bushes and small deciduous trees, stretching up to a village on the right, and abruptly into a dense forest on the left.  Other than the usual humming sound of summer, there was very little noise.  The only movement was happening at water level, where little water bugs were illuminated by the falling light, and fish occasionally mustered the gumption to jump lazily. 

     It was a view that is now my enduring image of natural German beauty.  Of course I didn’t have my camera on me.  But maybe it’s best left in my mind.  Somehow that preserves it, makes it more sacred.  At least that’s what I started telling myself when I realized I forgot my camera.

Moscow Mule

To call Moscow a bustling metropolis would be an understatement of a degree similar to calling the Grand Canyon a pretty big hole in the ground.  It is expansive, uncoordinated, confusing, massive and daunting.  It’s bleak, dirty, unforgiving, noisy, unrelenting, and often unfriendly.  I should mention that it has pockets of unequalled beauty.  The areas that are intended to be attractions are indeed attractive, but the parts in between compete with the worst any city in the world has to offer, that is, as far as my experience.

     Our show was at a club called Tochka, which looked as thought it had been co-decorated by Genghis Khan and Trent Reznor.  Like many places in Moscow, it was nearly impossible to find.  Even with the address, our driver had difficulty but finally discovered a driveway (unmarked) that went for about a quarter mile through construction, industrial buildings and warehouses (you would think you were lost), finally dead-ending at (what you might not have guessed was) the club.  We asked if this was the back door, thinking surely there must be some easily accessed entrance (or attractive façade) for the benefit of the patrons.  “No, this is the entrance all people must use.”  No wonder the place wasn’t packed.

     Next was a day off.  We decided to do something different, having already seen many of Moscow’s major sights on previous trips.  We opted for a museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery.  They had a massive collection (over 150 thousand pieces) of Russian Art, mostly painting and iconography, ranging from the 9th century to the 20th.  It was nice to slow down the pace of the day.  On tour, life seems to happen in much smaller, hyperactive chunks, and to spend a few hours in a tranquil, quiet and inspiring environment is a pleasant change.  After the museum we took the subway to a restaurant of Kazakh and Uzbek cuisine recommended to us by one of our guides, Dennis (drummer for the band Leningrad).  Again, the pace was slow.  Dinner probably took three hours.  We really only did two things in that one day – went to the museum and ate.  But the quality of existence was high, and was the more important measurement.

     But don’t relax yet, it’s time for an early morning flight to Vienna.  Another stretch of whirlwind routing, continuing with consecutive shows in Bildein (Austria), Zambjeira do Mar (Portugal), and Berlin.  After all we’ve been through, Berlin felt somehow like home.  It’s a familiar place, with friends, good memories and favorite spots, not to mention its being one of the greatest cities in the world.   Of course it didn’t hurt that we united with our bus and our own gear, a reunion that had been greatly anticipated and discussed with fervor.

     The show had a similar emotion.  The band is incredibly well received in Germany, and the crowd at Lido gave us a welcome possibly greater than we would have in Santa Barbara.  It’s a  favorite venue (featured in the Peter Fox video for “Alles Neu”), located in the heart of Kreuzberg, our favorite area of Berlin.  So all was good (and familiar) for a little bit, and the collective stress level took a little dip.  It never lasts for long, as people adjust and react against the new “normal,” but it’s nice to soak it in while you can.

9 Airports, 5 Days

After Norway, it was off to Spain.  By way of Amsterdam, Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, then a two hour drive to our ultimate destination, Viveiro.   Somewhere along the way all the checked luggage was lost.  Lost so completely, and by such a disreputable airline, that one might not expect to see it again.  But as it turned out, the substitute gear at the Resurrection Festival was more than adequate, and we did eventually reclaim our baggage.  We were the final band of the night, performing after hardcore favorites Napalm Death.  Watching Napalm Death was a revelation.  Not a genre of music that I usually enjoy, but I believe that in the hands of virtuosi, one can see what others see in a particular style.  Even more so the further the music lies from your natural tastes.

    viveiro The picture here is the view from our hotel.  Nice reward for a hectic day of air travel.  We were only there for a few hours however, as we had to wake up early to make that two hour drive back to Santiago de Compostela and fly to Madrid, then Berlin for our “day off.”  I put that in quotes because we arrived in time for dinner and a few beers at the historic Franken Bar before collapsing from exhaustion in our room at the (also historic) Rock ’n’ Roll Herberger hostel in Kreuzberg.  Then (can you guess?) up bright and early for our flight to St. Petersburg.

     My first trip to St. Petersburg was destined to be a short one.  We landed, got in a van, drove to the club, soundchecked, and were on stage shortly thereafter.  Almost immediately after the show we were back in the van and heading to the train station to catch our train to Moscow.  Although I had been looking forward to this particular leg of our journey, I must admit that want of sleep got to me, and I was only awake for about one of the nine hours we were aboard.  I was awarded with one of the finest, deepest nights of sleep I can remember.  There are those who have difficulty sleeping while in transit, but I am not one of them.  I have learned from touring in a bus that the gentle rocking and white noise aid me in sleeping soundly, and I have found that several of my bandmates feel the same.  I wonder if it has anything to do with returning to infancy.  People say environments that mimic the womb are almost universally comforting, so it would make sense that beds mimicking a rocking cradle would have a similar effect.  Such is the case with me, anyhow.

     So that gets us to Moscow.  Although we’ve used more than one mode of transportation, there has definitely been more air travel than any other.  In the first five days I’ve been gone, I’ve seen nine airports.  Los Angeles, Toronto, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Trondheim, Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, Berlin and St. Petersburg.  Planes, trains and more planes.  And this is just the beginning.

No(r)way, Dude

We were scheduled to leave our hotel for the Frankfurt airport at 5:00 AM.  Both my roommate and I went to sleep sometime around 10:00 PM and awoke early to the ringing of his phone.  I looked at mine, and saw that it read a time of 8:30 PM.  Knowing this was wrong, I asked him what time it was.  I must include at this point that the hotel room had no clock, save the one on the T.V. which only showed itself when it was on. His clock read about 4:00, so we got up, made some instant hotel room coffee and slowly collected our belongings.  When we got to the lobby, we found none of our traveling companions and congratulated ourselves for being the only punctual and responsible members of the group.  At about 5 minutes to 5:00, we started to worry and went to the front desk to call the other rooms.  We told the receptionist that our wake-up call had not come, and fearing that the same thing had happened with the other rooms, we wanted to make sure they were awake and on their way.  He told us that indeed the wake-up calls had been arranged for 4:30, but since it was only 2:00 AM they wouldn’t be coming for another 2 ½ hours.  So much for being on top of things.

     Skipping the next (boring) 14 hours, we arrived in Storås, Norway (a two hour drive from Trondheim).  The Storåsfestivalen is out in the woods, in a location that would appear familiar to anyone from the Pacific Northwest.  There was a “clearing” which wasn’t entirely clear of trees, where the performances were staged.  In some of the trees there were makeshift forts, some which were current and in use, as well as others which looked as though they had been destroyed and abandoned, presumably from previous years.  There were what looked like small, crude shrines (or maybe art installations?), craft booths and makeshift taverns littering the relatively small forest arena.  It looked like the encampment of a cult of anarchist loggers.  The festival-goers were similar to those found at other Western European festivals.  Often covered in mud, vomit, or both, sometimes actually in the process of vomiting on themselves, but appearing to be having a good time.  The vomiting seems to be an accepted purging, an inconvenient but necessary requirement for the continuation of good times, and in no way indicates an end to the imbibing.  These folks are usually happy, but sometimes aggressively so, to the point that in encountering them it is hard to tell if you are being greeted or attacked.  We found our crowd to be enthusiastic, and although the band had never played in Norway before, a small group of them knew most or all of the lyrics.

   storasfestivalen  Also playing at the festival were Bjorn Again, Kaizers Orchestra, The Easy Star Dub All-Stars, and The Valentourettes, to name a few.  After the show, we were fed a traditional Norwegian meal, which consisted of boiled potatoes covered in a beef and pork stew with dumplings, accompanied by some kind of unleavened flat bread.  Although I am grateful to our hosts, it became clear to me why I don’t see many Norwegian restaurants back at home.  That did not stop me from eating as much of the nameless stew as my body could semi-comfortably contain.  Stuffed, we proceeded to our lodgings, the Saga Trollheimen (lots of laughs over that one).  This hotel consisted of a rough grouping of log lodges that, despite their newness seemed like some kind of medieval dormitory.  On the top floor of our lodge was a lounge with what looked like wool plugging up breezy holes, and which smelled distinctly of cut wood.  It was here that we hung out briefly (just long enough to get another beer down) before retiring to get the maximum possible 3 hours of sleep.  At 3:00 AM we departed for the Trondheim airport, having been in Norway for about 9 hours.

Last Things Next

      Although I bring a gigantic bag that could fit in it an entire adult contortionist, there isn’t that much that a person really needs on the road.  I am not going to “go all Thoreau” on you, describing in great detail all of the purchases I’ve made in preparation, belongings I have compiled (and piled), etc.  There are only a couple of items that I find to be not entirely boring, and how I acquired them is none of anyone’s business.

The three items of particular interest to me are:

Trail Mix – I try to bring several big bags, over a pound apiece.  I have become increasingly health conscious, and Trail Mix (I don’t do the kind with chocolate or yogurt covered bits) is an option for snacking that I have convinced myself is healthy.  In Germany, where we spend the bulk of our time, it’s called “Student Food,” and comes in about two varieties.  In contrast, America is the land of Trail Mix opportunity, where a person can find just about any combination of dried fruit, nuts and seeds their heart desires.  My favorite variety recently suffered a massive recall due to Salmonella.  Having eaten one of the bags in question, I can only testify to its deliciousness.  My new blend is one that includes dried cherries, pistachios and walnuts – I do occasionally miss that Nantucket Blend.  We had some good times.

Books – I love to read, and since traveling provides an excellent opportunity to do so, I bring a significant amount of reading material.  No less than three books.  This time I’m bringing The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry and The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.  If I find another few square inches of room in my bag, my reserves will be The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Blue Boy by Jean Gionot.

Melodica – The Melodica is a musical instrument related to the harmonica and accordion.  I know the thought is appalling, but hang on.  It has piano style keys like an accordion, but instead of squeezing to create air pressure, you blow into it, like a harmonica.  All three instruments use reeds for sound production, so they have common tone qualities.  It is compact and portable, handy for busking (playing on the street for money), working on song ideas, “jamming,” and irritating others.

     As for the rest of my packing list (surprise!  I’m bringing clothes), it’s far too dull to bother you with.  Additionally, I feel I may have pushed it a little with the elaboration on Trail Mix, so I’m finished here.  For all you know I left my underwear at home.

First Things First

This blog is a record of my personal experiences as a touring musician. It isn’t a particularly journalistic effort, as many of the details are not filtered or checked for relevance. This lack of filtration yields a certain amount of pulp, which is often more interesting than the crafted column, especially in the hands of an untrained outsider journalist like myself.
This particular outing is about a month long, and covers a great deal of the continent of Europe. I am the keyboard player – I do this for a living. It may be one of the best jobs out there, but…