I drove 6630 kilometers in the last month. Doesn’t seem that much looking back on it though. Hours pass by like fleeting glimpses when I am in a car. My mind is at ease and active at the same time. Driving a car through the United States is a learning experience. I have done it before, but this turn I had lots of time to think and to observe how this country is built on the use of automobiles in a way that Europeans will hopefully never emulate.
One of the weird experiences driving here is that, for all the beating on the chest and the truly scary flagwaving insistence (Stars and stripes are Everywhere, as if US citizens constantly need reminding of what country they live in), that this is the land of the free, Americans constantly get ordered around in traffic. All the time.
At first I could not get rid of the impression that behind every tree a cop was waiting to arrest me if I as much as opened a side window. Then, one day, I understood where this sense of being told how to behave came from. Almost every traffic sign in this country has at least one word on it. It is as if Americans cannot learn the meaning of traffic symbols and they need to be able to read what it signifies. If the maximum speed is 60 miles an hour, the sign says : Speed Limit 60. If the symbol on the sign means ‘Don’t make a U-turn” It says ‘No U-turn’. The triangle which indicates you should yield to other traffic has the word ‘yield’ written on it. The sign that means you should merge says ‘merge’. Obvious. But it can get pretty dangerous at points. Reading a word like ‘yield’ takes no time at all, but the signs that blew my mind said things like: ‘Trucks and combination vehicles use right lane when operated below 70 miles an hour’ or ‘Emergency stopping only. Unattended vehicles subject to towing at owners expense.’ Imagine trying to read that at 70 miles an hour!
Some signs seem rather surrealistic, like the one telling you to move over for vehicles involved in an emergency. As if I would rather run into them. Or the sign saying : “Move crashed vehicles to shoulder if not seriously injured.” Uhuh. Or my favorite, because of its simple, dadaist obscurity: ‘Headlights on when using wipers.’
Of course Europeans speak different languages and travel through each others’ countries all the time so it is understandable that we get ordered around by symbols instead of by language and I guess that is why Americans use language a lot more in traffic signalisation, they all speak english, kind of. But since the illiteracy rate is relatively high here, I doubt whether all these words are a good idea, let alone the dangers of slowing down to read signs like: “ Vehicles with more than six wheels must use left lane unless driver is born on a tuesday” or “Diamond lane only for vehicles containing more than 2 passengers if driver is a capricorn.”
America never looks more monotonous than when you get off an interstate exit to get gas and food. Ihop, McDonalds, Cracker Barrel, Waffle House, KFC, you can go there all over the country and every freeway exit’s architecture looks like it was turned out of the same mould. This way you can be certain that the food you had a thousand miles earlier is still available where you end up and that you will recognise where you are. In case you get anxiety there is always an american flag waving in sight to reassure you you are safe. A strange and depressing sense of security, that.
And after driving for ten hours, I find a motel and park. After a quick shower I want to go get some dinner. No problem, there are several restaurants just across the four lane street. After all, this is a typical roadside stop: hotels and restaurants. So I think I will walk to the restaurant, after all it is just 200 meters away. These 200 meters turn out to be an adventure. There are no sidewalks and no pedestrian crossings. I have to sprint across four lanes, walk onto parking lots and back on grassy knolls, jump over ditches before I reach the restaurant. All this because I did something outrageous: I walked 200 meters. Weird me, a normal person would have gotten into in the car to get here.
Anyway. Here I am. Back at home, with a slowly receding jet lag, the sense that I will get into that US traffic again some time in the future and an experience under the belt that will color my path, be it walking or driving, for many years. Life is not about asphalt, it is about meeting people, communicating, reciprocating. Hereby my heart felt appreciation to friends, new acquaintances and some – I truly hope – new made friends along the way Thank you: Barbara, Gino, Joey, Rob, Les, Tom, Wes, Keith, Ellen, Paul, Steve, Alexis, Len, Ann, Helen, John, Allison,Tom, Michael, Lu, Richard, Dominique, David, Beatty, Shantelle, Melissa, Angela, Joseph Sr, Joseph Jr, Jimmy and Cy.
I welcome summer, the projects it brings and look forward to work on The Second Mouse.
Walking into the Commodore Grill in Nashville I had a déja vu. In fact I had two. Déja vu. Americans pronounce the term in such an absurd way and with such self confidence that as a European I am bludgeoned into silence. It happens to me every time. Like a, errr, a déja vu.
Before I step from the lobby into the heart of the open mic, a man walks by me and we both do a double take, looking at each other. It is Beatty, the songwriter who was so gracious last year to leave me his spot so I could play at the famous Blue Bird Café. He happens to be playing here tonight too and introduces me to other fellow songwriters.
Inside I say hello to Debi who runs the whole show and see that nothing has changed to the setting. As the evening progresses I will notice that I actually recognize quite a few faces of fellow songwriters performing from seeing them last year. I suspect they are a kind of special breed, roaming from open mic to open mic to network, practice in public and, evenytally, sell the song.
Personally I have great doubts as to whether this will actually ever happen. Not because the songs are bad or anything, although their originality mostly lies more in the lyrics than in the ubiquitous country idiom in which they are written, but mainly because I am convinced that people from the music industry have better and other options to find talent than roaming these kind of events. And in a conversation I have a few days later with someone who is deeply involved in the industry this view is wholeheartedly confirmed.
Still, I am here, I enjoy the evening and play my songs to an enthousiastic response from the crowd. Next to me on stage Tom, who is from Alabama and sang his personal songs with an intensity that brings tears to his eyes and make my hairs stand up, is ‘blown away’ by my playing and my lyrics. I smile, wide, and say thank you.
I hear a lot of people building a song around one meme of lyric. ‘It’s like drinking water from a garden hose: it ain’t perfect, but it’s close”, that kind of stuff. It is cute, it is boring and it has a certain desperation hanging over it that gets to me, somehow. Friendly people all, whipping out their business card faster than I can shake their hand. I get introduced to a man, whose name I forget (no card since, supposedly, I am to be impressed by who he worked with – I forgot that too) and who is ‘really looking forward to hear me play’, after which he disappears before I am on. That kind of stuff. The very last act of the evening is Josh from LA and he brings what brings me here: passion, skill, personality. Makes my evening that one song, really does. A gem.
Next day, as I am waiting for my host to take me to see the aforementioned music industry man, I write a new song. Bam! In forty five minutes it is out of my system, into the world. A little magic. Life is a trip in moments like that. Well, life is a trip, always. I hear my host in the house, ready to go and it really is time to go, but since new songs are highly addictive to play, I play it once more before going to the living room in order to leave. When we arrive at the studio where the meeting will take place a gruesome car accident has just happened involving three cars. People have just gotten out of their vehicles to try to help the victims and to handle oncoming traffic before police and emergency services arrive. There are bodies thrown out of a car into a ditch, there is a car on its roof. It happened in our lane, five minutes ago. Five minutes, in which one can dally, play a brand new song one more time and thus escape from a fateful car accident. As I stand on the roof of the studio and watch the emergency helicopter land on the lawn in front of the buiding to fly off with (I hear later) two heavily injured young children I think of the relativity of things, the fragilty of life and the invisible tightrope we walk that seperates life from death.
Having received truly enlightening information on how the music world is evolving and going home with yet another studio possibility to record in the future, I head out for my very last gig of this tour, a solo concert at The Back Alley Diner in downtown Nashville. I played there last year too, albeit not a whole set. This time I play an hour and a half and I truly enjoy doing that. Much as I loved sharing the stage with Jimmy, there is great satisfaction also in playing my stuff in a full set. The sound man, whose name is Sean, which throws me off since that is what I have called my GPS’s voice all throught the trip, is very attentive, making sure the sound stays optimal during the whole set. Beatty is there to honor me with his attention. Sean tells me my playing reminds him off Antoine Dufour, another name for my list of ‘I have been compared to…’. To which Beatty adds ‘I don’t think you sound like anyone I have ever heard’. Possibly the biggest compliment I have ever received.
Up at five thirty and drove for nine hours from New Orleans to Nashville the other day. Along the way there were a bunch of very local and very intense tropical showers trying to blind everyone on the road and succeeding quite well. In between it was incredibly hot and I even got some heavy rain while driving in bright sunshine. No clue how that happened. Drove into Nashville and straight to my hideout. Let’s call it a change of scenery. I bathe in luxury here. My hosts are generous and they have a lot to give.
I watch as Woody Woodpecker’s real life twin comes and eats from the food that is hanging in plenty of trees here. His head is truly as red as his cartoon couterpart. Hummingbirds, blue jays, murmuring water, a view out over the hills in the distance. Paradisiacal. Classical music is playing inside the house, there is enough of everything I could need, and more. And there is the Generosity of the Heart in this house, which is the most precious of all, of course.
Drove for three hours yesterday, to Knoxville. I made two appearances in the same day there. First off was The Blue Plate Special, a live radio show on WDVX Knoxville, a community supported radio station that airs live lunch concerts every week day, year round. The concert takes place at the Knoxville Visitor center in downtown Knoxville. Nice little stage and lots of chairs set up for the audience. And just about all were taken by the time the show got on air. It was a bit of a rushed sound check since Jimmy, who had flown into Atlanta the day before, got stuck in traffic driving over from there. But we made it just in time. And we plugged our evening show in town to the best of our abilities.
The host of the show, by the appropriate name of Red, was real friendly and announced me as ‘the one who talks funny’. I thought ‘Look who is talking.’ Local accents here can throw you off. On the way over I had stopped for breakfast and next to me was a table with ten retired local men, whose lingo was just about ungraspable. Talk funny. The idea! Jimmy opened up with ‘Nu Slap’ and as he was playing I changed my mind about the first thing I was going to play and went for the scary instrumental. Pulled it off, I think. Live dangerously and look back happy. On stage, if I looked back, I saw a wall with the ‘Blue Plate Special Wall of Fame’ a collection of blue dinner plates featuring imprinted colour photographs of acts that have played on the show. I would say the plates look err, different, gaudy, maybe, a bit?
After checking into the hotel for tonight we headed back downtown to play the Preservation Pub on Market Square right aroung the corner from the visitor center downtown. The square bans cars and that makes for a nice tranquil space with restaurants, shops and bars. One of them is Preservation Pub.
Three floors, two of them featuring live music tonight. We are on the second floor and walk into a long bar with booths and stools and lots of funky character. Knoxville is a college town and you can tell from the design of a place like this and the crowd. Would fit nicely in, say, Amsterdam, this joint.
Cullen, the sound technician works for WFIV radio station which records the show and airs it later in the month. There are sofas in the back of the stage. Our own on stage green room. Nice. We share the stage for the second time with Wesley Cook, with whom we played in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. It turns out to be a blast. We play in the round for two hours straight, getting in on each others songs a lot. The crowd loves what we are doing and some even danced at some point. I consider it a worthy goodbye concert with Jimmy Robinson, since he flies back to New Orleans and I head back to Nashville from here.
Drove three hours this morning and the blue jays still abound here. The drive was enjoyable, winding its way through the Smoky Mountains, which truly are smoky from the extensive water vapor rising from the treetops. Tonight it is Nashville time as I return to The Commodore to play a featured slot at its open mic.
Bring it on!
Tomorrow I say goodbye to New Orleans. For now. Last year it was rather hard saying goodbye, since the city just got to me right away. This year it is easier: I just know I will be back.
‘I could live here.’, the thought passed through my head more than once during the last eleven days. Funny really, since I have just about had it with living in a city. But this place…people from elsewhere, as well as from here have warned me, ‘Watch out, it’s gonna get under your skin.’ And it did, it does, like there is something in the little blisters that spread like constellations on my hands. Sweat rash. The Big Easy is marking my cells, creeping into my system. ‘Welcome.’, I say.
Jimmy and I played Mobile, Alabama two nights ago and that was, well, strange. Moe’s BBQ’s big back room was filled with a Class of ’78 high school reunion. Nothing against that, but it makes for unsatisfying playing. But we survived and near the end friends of Jimmy made it and it turned out to be a truly nice encounter with exquisite singer-songwriter Lisa Mills, who is actually a friend and touring partner of Belgium’s BJ Scott. I also got the chance to meet her friend David McGee, former twenty five year long writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. David lives in New York and started his own music publication, Deep Roots Magazine. He will give my CD a listen and write up on it, if he likes it. He has got a hundred thousand readers, so I am hoping he Does like it.
Apart from the concert playing, which is a gas, truly, a trip like this is all about being out here and talking to people, having meetings that turn into a networking thing without it feeling like ‘an appointment’. Like Jimmy says: ‘It’s no use playing at a place just once. You have to keep at it.’ Advice I will gladly take to heart.
Last night we played across Lake Portchartrain at Saint John’s Coffeehouse in Covington. Getting there took us straight across the lake on a 39km long causeway that makes you feel like you are driving across the sea. The coffeehouse is a historic building in the center of Covington, and reminded me in a way of some bars in my hometown, stone floor, beautiful old countertop bar, a place with a story to tell, I am sure. Also, a strong building. Someone told me after the concert that when a hurricane passes through she heads for the coffeehouse since it is so old and still standing in its original state. Sounds real smart, that.
Happy to say that when we walked in, the place was full of people, amongst whom, to my great pleasure, Lu Rojas, who engineered my recordings a few days ago. For me the gig was one of the best ones on the tour. I could feel the vibe going back and forth between me and the crowd, who were glued onto every word I sang. Resonance. Can’t order it to happen and when it does it proves to be what it is All about. This audience really got into my songs and into my lyrics. Afterwards I had some great conversations on music, life, sustainable living and permaculture. If you do it, it will happen. Smile.
A super moon hung over us as I drove back over the causeway. Had some super sleep when I hit the sack.
So today is getting-ready-day. As I type here, at my second office (the Fair Grinds Coffee House, which is a lot more comfortable than the back of the Mercedes), my laundry is in the dryer at the ‘Washeteria’ a block away. I will be cleaning the storm appartment later on, hopefully have a drink with my high school allumni friend, Allison, who was at Every concert I played in New Orleans. She was doing ‘the Grateful Dead thing’ as Jimmy calls it.
And then. It will be goodbye Big Easy, be well, stay happy and, above all, be safe. May nature spare you from more scars, may your people keep their heart beating to rhythm of your music.
And be here when I get back.
On the corner of Leonidas and Oak Street sits a pale pink wooden house with a rather new looking metal roof. I arrived there at noon two days ago. The sun was blaringly bright and when I stepped inside, my eyes took a long time adjusting to the dim light. I had walked straight into the mixing room of Oak Street Recording. There I met Lu Rojas and Roger Branch, co-owners of this outfit. The welcome was friendly and relaxed the recording room looked like you could spend a nice afternoon in it. Like a living room, filled with tapestries, objects of all sorts, among them, almost casually, stands with microphones, a grand piano, a vintage pre-amp rig, congas, guitars. It felt like somebody lives here. It turns out that the house is Roger’s and he does live here, although not in the studio proper, of course.
Lu will be the sound engineer for my sessions and he breezes through the preparations for recording tracks with Jimmy and Tom while we settle down and tune up. My experiences recording in studios are almost automatically linked to a certain kind of stress, but here everything up to the moment of the first take is moving like a gently burbling brook. I feel at Ease.
Since Jimmy brought his electric guitar and we will be recording everything played together, he gets locked up in the drum cage that I hardly noticed was there. Recording levels get set, monitoring levels get set and then I hear Lu’s voice in my head saying the phrase I am about to hear a lot (but much less than I expected) the next two days: “You’re rolling”. The session goes well. There is a good interaction beween Jimmy, Tom and I and, very important, with Lu in the mixing room.
When in between takes I look to my left I see a big black and white photograph of a black man who looks vaguely familiar. In the coming hours I am about to find out that the gentleman in the picture is none less than Allen Toussaint, famous New Orleans R&B musician, composer and producer and owner of the legendary Sea Saint Studios. If you you ever heard stuff like ‘Working in the Coal Mine”, well, he wrote it. Roger Branch worked for Toussaint for many many years as his sound engineer at Sea Saint.
I had gotten the impression there was a certain vintage feel to some of the equipment in here and I was right. The recordings I made here over the last two days passed through the same mixing console that Paul McCartney’s ‘Venus and Mars’ was recorded on. Sorry, that just made me smile. And after working with lil FLOATSTONE from Belgium, Lu Rojas is – as I am writing this – recording Allen Toussaint himself. Suffice to say I feel privileged and in exquisite company.
Later in the day, in walks Michael Skinkus, percussionist par excellence. He listens intently to the day’s work and adds on layers of conga, bongo, cymbals, shakers and the soul moving boom of a Huge bodhrán. (I want one!)
I am blessed by such artists and sound people working with and for me. For they are not only top class in what they do. Each of the five men I work with prove to be kind and kindred souls, with a heart for what I think music and life is about: Love.
In one of many nice exchanges in between takes, Roger, who is like a guardian spirit with a left over North Carolina drawl, easing in and out of view, tells me his intention was to create a musician’s studio and Oak Street Recording is just that. No sterility, no flashiness, but a place that feels like home, where one can work comfortably and well. And you get the chance to pet ‘Lil Feet’, the studio’s cat.
When I return to the pink house for an extra session the next day, the sun is nowhere to be seen. Instead a tropical rain shower that tries its best to drill anything alive directly into the side walk, pours down on me as I unload the car. Once inside, I am as drenched as if I had gotten under the shower with my clothes on. Roger offers me one of his dry flanel shirts. ‘Offer’ as in ‘Keep it, you look good in it.’ Love indeed.
I take the time to record ‘The Way Out’, solo, getting into the vocals at leisure and afterwards Tom comes in to play the fiddle on it. I sit four feet away from him under headphones and on ‘thát one’ take tears well up and roll down my face as he makes that fiddle sing to my soul. There is no language like music. None.
So here I am, ready to play more gigs on my tour, but as of now I am the possessor of two DVD’s (one back up), full of wonderful material that will feature on my next CD which will be called ‘The Second Mouse’. (Don’t tell ‘Lil Feet’!)
Thank you Lu and Roger for the encounter, the experience.
I Truly hope to be Back.
In a couple of hours I will be at Oak Street Recording Studio, to catch the spirit of what New Orleans’ musicians add to my music. Always exciting to get into a recording session, this time it will be especially so, of course. To have Jimmy Robinson, Tom Marron and Michael Skinkus at my ready disposal is a true artistic luxury.
I have spent the last couple of days rehearsing at the warehouse. It’s my temporary home. An old factory building from the 1880’s refurbished as a place for workshops, artists’ dens and such. Always some activity going on there and you can drive into the building up to the second floor (if you can slalom that Mercedes, that is). On top of the roof is a private view of New Orleans’ skyline.
Since there will be a new road movie in the making as of my return to Belgium, a lot of filming has been going on too. New Orleans is one big film set in a way and the city is actually promoting itself as just that: a good place to make movies for not a lot of money. Thanks, doing just that.
Now that I am staying in New Orleans longer than last time it becomes so much more apparent that the people of this city are dividing its timescale into two distinct segements, b.k. and a.k.. Before Katrina and After Katrina. The hurricane that flooded New Orleans in 2005 has changed the city in very fundamental ways. There are the obvious things like raised walls to keep rising waters out of the inner city, there are the remnants of the wooden pillars that rise out of Lake Pontchartrain (which is so big you would think you are looking out over a sea rather than over a lake) and used to support a whole array of shops, bars and restaurants built over the water and are now just sleeping spots for pelicans. There are many measures that people have taken to be better prepared. One of them is the storm appartment I am staying in at the warehouse, by the way.
But there is also the sense of community that has changed. The result of feeling generally left to rescue themselves after Katrina, has brought the people of New Orleans closer together and the power of devastation has led to being less cocky when building houses. Nature always wins, and didn’t these people learn the hard way. The streets in o so many neighborhoods are still a cracked wasteland of hodge podge asphalt repairs and iron sewage lids that have seemingly risen from the earth (actually it’s the other way around: the whole street dropped under the force of the water and the metal parts stayed where they were. Driving New Orleans is therefore a slow and meandering process, adding to the feel of being in the Big Easy.
But where I personally feel the impact of Katrina most is when Jimmy plays and sings his version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’. There is an intensity to that which strikes deep. It is a powerful song in itself, but when Jimmy sings it, it carries the gut wrenching legacy of a man who has lived through the levee actually breaking for real, a man who had to leave everything he owned behind, put his family and aging mother in a car and make a run from the rising water, not knowing whether or to what they would ever return. True beauty is so often born out of true pain.
I spent an evening at Tom Marron’s place, looking out over Saint John’s Bayou and I finally learned what a bayou actually is. A bayou is a natural canal that is connected to a lake or a river. Or as a Dutch engineer looking at it here in New Orleans once asked: ‘Why do you let the enemy into your house?’ To me it didn’t look dangerous at all. It looked like a peaceful canal, a great place for rowing a boat, walking Tom’s ancient dogs along its shore and especially for looking out over from Tom’s balcony as the night falls, talking philosphy and sharing songs on his Martin guitar (ah, the Martin, one day….).
Today is a cloudy, ‘cool’ day, soon I will be under headphones trying to forget that the red recording light is on. Bring it on!
‘The Wild Salmon’ in Lafayette sits on the edge of town and as I enter, I feel like I am walking into a scene from the Blues Brothers’ movie. You know, the one where they sing behind chicken wire in order to survive the beer bottles thrown at them. Nothing of the sort happened to me though. First of all, the people inside are all very friendly and secondly, there just aren’t very many of them. Jimmy and I do our thing in a setting that excudes a certain kind of forlorn beer coaster and juke box (digital!) Americana. I can imagine this place going as wild as the salmon in its name, but not tonight. Life on the road is like that, win some lose some. Drive home, sleep and move on.
Which is what I did. And how! Last night meant my first ever return to a venue in the States I had actually played before. Kind of special, that. As I drove around yesterday afternoon I became aware that the neighborhood where I stay and eat and blog is sort of becoming ‘my neighborhood’ too and actually ten minutes ago a man on the sidewalk said ‘ Welcome to the ‘hood’. Blending in is going nicely, thank you.
New Orleans is not the United States like New York is not the United States, but in an entirely different, almost opposite, way. You get the feel of it when you cruise the streets, which are lined by countless trees. Very green here and there is the sense of laissez faire that is very contagious. As Jimmy put it: “You can’t spend more than an hour in this town before someone calls you Baby or Darlin’.”
I walk back into Carrollton Station. New owners since I last played here. Colleen, half of the couple running the place now, greets me as Floatstone, explains how things will work drinkwise tonight and makes me feel welcome. The bar has become non smoking which feels very different from last year when a cloud of smoke hung over our shoulders while we played. The stage seems bigger than last time too, but that is just because all the clutter has been removed and, yes!, there is a new sound system and soundman Jeff turns out a great mix.
The evening turns into a reunion with fiddler Tom Marron who gave me live goose bumps last year as I played ‘The Well’ (a song about the Deepwater Horizon disaster here). It is also a first encounter with Michael Skinkus who is a top notch percussionist. Both of them step in on any of my songs I want and we have a ball. It is great to let go of the set structure my songs have when I play them solo. Some breaks I use would just throw my partners off, so I leave them out. I let the songs flow, up and down, loud and soft, leave lots of room for solo stuff and generally enjoy the chemistry. Tom plays the harmonica too. Lucky me. Michael and I double up as percussionists on Jimmy’s ‘Can’t Stop Drinking’ and we just drive each other on until I am about to get cramps, smiling cramps, I mean. The four of us end with the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Sleeps’. Jammin’!
There are many advantages of being a one man band. You can always rehearse, you have only one agenda to check, you can chop into a song at random, but of course, there is no interaction except with your audience. So I bathed in the energy loop that gets set up playing with Jimmy, Tom and Michael. Read from the crowd’s reaction and afterwards from my colleagues’, a truly enjoyable time was had by all.
I look so much forward to get into the recording studio with these guys in a couple of days.
But first it will be rehearsal time with Tom. He will be over in a couple of hours to get some arrangements set up before we get into the studio later on this week. So I guess I will be ‘working’ this afternoon. Sure doesn’t feel that way.