Friday, February 26, 2010

Tales From A Sunburnt Country

Tour of Australia 2009

Part 1

New York to LA, LA to Sydney. After three weeks on the East Coast, I’m home for one day. Then it’s fifteen hours in the air, crammed into another Delta coach seat, Australia bound. 

I arrive at 6:30 am. At 9:30 I’m on the phone with a newspaper writer in Melbourne, pulling off charming and witty in spite of the massive time displacement. Jet lag doesn’t accurately describe what it’s like coming here. It’s more like time travel. Wheels up on Tuesday, land on Thursday. I keep moving, a nap would be deadly. Lunch at noon, then ABC radio in Sydney for a live one with Richard Glover. He’s a fan and a real pro, it went so fast and smooth I had no sense of even doing it. If only they could all be like this.

Back at the shack at 4:00, another press interview. This time I’m talking to Maria, from one of the papers in Perth. A land so exotic and far away that even most Australians have never been there. I will be there in two weeks. I’m still on, but it getting harder now.

7:00. We’re at a pub watching Pugsley Buzzard sing and play the piano. We’re doing a co-bill at the Basement in Sydney on Tuesday, and I’m sitting in to promote the show. Pugs sure can play the shit out of that piano. I have met my match, and I dig the challenge. I inhale a t-bone steak, play two songs, and head out of town with Mick the bass player to his place an hour south of town.

My head meets the pillow at 11:30, and I’m gone.

Awake in the am, the ocean booms softly below, the parrots call to each other in the trees. Paradise. Mick is set up here. We eat omeletes and drink strong coffee, get ready to go. Three hours to Canberra for another radio interview. We run out of gas within sight of a gas station, just as I am telling Mick how I love being on the road with him because he never fucks up. I figure he still didn’t fuck up because he ran out of gas so close to the station. The whole incident only sets us back 15 minutes.

Radio goes nicely. I banter with the host about drop bears and such, bang on the old upright. The horn section, which will be with me for the next four shows, is in the green room when I get back there. We have a quick verbal run-through of the charts, and then we all head out to The Great Southern Blues & Rockabilly Festival in Narooma. A hypothetical three hours away. There’s torrential rain, weekend traffic, and we’re stuck on a mountain two-lane behind an old camper with one of its rear brakes throwing sparks and fire. The trip takes over four hours.

In the backstage parking lot:

Me: “Where do we get our backstage passes?”

Parking Lot Guy: “I don’t know!”

At the front gate:

Me: “Where’s the Albert King Stage?”

Front Gate Woman: “I don’t know!”

Everyone here is on a need-to-know basis, apparently.

After much wandering in the pissing rain, we find the backstage entrance. Hugs all around with my good friends Gerry and Carmen Blaine. Gerry is the MC tonight. Candye Kane is ripping it up the next tent over, I want to drop by and never get the chance to. We say hi later via MySpace instead. Ahh, the modern world. Even as you gain something, you lose something better at the same time.

As showtime looms, the six-piece band I will be doing these shows with is finally assembled in one place. Half this band I am meeting for the first time. No rehearsal. They nail it. The crowd shows much love. It is a great night.

Back in my room at the La Salle Motor Inn, I have left my book backstage, and there is no wifi. Only the TV. No cable. A soul-numbing choice between “Thank God It’s Friday” or “Best Videos of the Eighties.” 1979 through 1989…was there ever a worse time for popular culture than those years? No, there was not. Disco, followed shortly by MTV and the drum machine. The music biz shot itself in the foot, and the patient never recovered.

This will be two days old by the time you lay eyes on it. And on the road, two days is a very long time.

Part 2

Day two, Narooma Blues Festival. Up at 7 am to croak out a radio interview by phone. I’ve already done so many of these this month that I honestly can’t remember where or what station he was calling from. It’s good to have publicity, though. I appreciate it, even if I don’t know exactly whom it is I should be appreciating. My voice is shredded. Sleep deprivation, damp cold weather, and a soundman who wouldn’t turn up the monitor have all contributed. There are soundmen, believe it or not, who are quite resentful when you ask them to, well…to do sound.

A little later, Mick and I join my good Aussie friends Gerry and Carmen for brekky (that’s what they call it here). Various folks who saw the show the night before come by to say hi and tell us how much they dug it. We talk and eat for a good long time. It’s raining too hard to explore the town or do much of anything. I head back to the room and fall asleep.

Later on, Mick and the horn section and I go out for the second worst Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. No Asians working at this place…we should have known. The first worst Chinese food I’ve ever eaten, if you’re wondering, was at this joint in Denver where they had a couple of giant Samoans cooking up the grub in the back. The year was 1990, and I was on my way out to L.A. to start my new life on the West Coast. So traumatized by this meal was I that I still remember it vividly after all these years. It was not, as they say, the business.

Backstage, there too early and bored, I flirt mildly with the pretty young thing at the backstage food counter. She is working the concession with her mother and grandmother. The grandmother is the most fun and lively of the three. She comes over to whisper in my ear that her granddaughter likes me, and then flits off like a schoolgirl. I got the feeling grandma wouldn’t have minded a crack at it herself. Mom remained bemused and indifferent. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But it mattered not, I’m married. Just like to check every now and again and see if I’ve still got the goods.

Onstage, getting ready to play, I hear the following exchange:

Mick the Bass Player: “Hey Steve, I’ve got some DW-40 tonight!”

Steve the Guitar Player: “No worries! I brought my gloves!”

I ask if they’d like to share a room for the rest of the tour.

Our tent is packed to capacity as we start the show. Lots of love and energy from the crowd, and the usual festival smattering of neo-hippie chicks with a nice buzz going doing that hippie noodle dance thing. I never get tired of watching this. When blues legend Charlie Musselwhite hits the stage the next tent over, we get quite a few defections from the crowd, but this is to be expected.

Postshow, back at the merch table, I sign CDs for fans and find out we have sold a shockingly good number of discs between our shows last night and tonight. One very friendly couple comes by with a photo they took of me playing at Blues on Broadbeach festival in 2006. They have carried it around for four years waiting to run into me so they can get an autograph on it. My first instinct was to confiscate the thing – I’d lost nearly 30 pounds since this photo was taken. Didn’t need THAT thing floating around, slowing inching it’s way to a nonstop appearance on the internet, where all your fat pictures live on and on. Even after you have dropped those pounds like a bad habit.

Back at the motel, Mick fixes my stuck boot zipper with some WD-40 and a piece of a keyring. It’s like having MacGyver on bass.

Sunday morning we drive the three hours back to Canberra, where we play a 3:00 show for the local blues society. This schedule is punishing, and the rain won’t let up. But tomorrow is a day off.

We stay for the night at Mick’s parent’s house. They are very kind, helpful and hospitable. The food is great, the beds are soft. The source of Mick’s many good traits revealed to me at last.

Tuesday is upon us before we know it. It is the night of our show at The Basement, probably the most revered and famous club in Australia. Everything is first-rate – the sound, the staff, the Steinway grand. It is the day after a three-day holiday weekend, and it’s raining. Not a recipe for great attendance, but a nearly full house shows up and we have a very fine show. Such a pleasure to play a place like this. For a crowd like this. With a band like this. On a piano like this. Nothing is getting in the way of us making the best music we can make. This is how it should be every night. I believe that I have clawed my way to within sight of that reality.

On the way back to Mick’s house in The Gong, we are starving. Hoping for an open kebab stand, we reach the last outpost of Sydney without seeing one. Desperate for sustenance, we pull into Mc Donald’s. I have a strict Only-Twice-a-Year policy about eating Mickey D’s. This will be my second and final transgression for 2009, and I am famished enough to deem it acceptable. Mick hasn’t eaten at a McDonald’s in fifteen years! He is already traumatized by what is about to happen. We order, and as we sit in the deserted late-night eatery, surrounded by plastic clown statues, which Mick is also having a hard time with, a man comes in with a mop and a rolling tub of water. He unceremoniously dumps the water all over the floor in front of us and starts to briskly spread it around. Soon, small breakers of soapy brown water are lapping against our shoes. It’s high tide at McDonald’s. Mick is appalled:

“Is this normal?” he asks the woman at the counter.
“No, we usually have security,” she says.

What is that supposed to mean? Security for the likes of us, or for the occasional rouge worker, heedlessly splashing water all over the customers?

I guess we’ll never know, we took the remainders of our burgers and got the hell out.

Today, we bask in the glow of the previous night’s performance, feed parrots and lorikeets out on the porch, and head back up to Sydney to visit our good friend Alison Penney.

Tomorrow we light out for Melbourne.

Part 3

Eight hours on the Hume Highway got us from Mick’s house in The Gong to gray and cloudy Melbourne. We made a dutiful stop at the “Dog on a Tucker Box” statue/tourist trap/restaurant. Perhaps the most underwhelming thing of its kind I have ever seen. And the coffee sucked. The small monument was easily overwhelmed by the wonderful scenery that surrounded it. I was struck once again by how similar the scenery in this part of the world is to that of central and southern California. You can tell that this continent broke off of the North American West Coast and floated away a few billion years ago, All back in the Dreamtime.

The ‘roo and wombat roadkill were legion, and hard for this Yank to get used to. It seemed like every five miles there was a disemboweled macropod having its entrails picked and pulled by fat black crows and ravens. Good eating for the birds, I guess.

That first night in Melbourne, we stayed with Mick’s old friend Cindy in a bohemian two-bedroom that reminded me of so many apartments I lived in when we all went to college in Boston and nobody went to college anywhere else. Right down to the scattered pools of melted candle wax, and the roommate twisting one up on the sprung and tattered couch. Cindy was sweet and accommodating, and made us welcome after a long journey. A long night of reminiscing and smoking and drinking was clearly in the making, so I grabbed a pillow in the bedroom and made my way to the land of Nod.

Our gig was right downtown at the Paris Cat Jazz Club. A great room in Mebourne’s delightful labyrinth of bustling, restaurant and coffee-bar filled alleyways. There was extremely subtle signage, and a trip through a wooden door downstairs to the club. A real nice jazz-type joint, with grand piano and drums already there. Like they were waiting for us. The place filled up and we did the show. A very good night. Met a guy that had just wandered in after attending the Slayer/Megadeth double bill at Festival Hall. He was flabbergasted at how hard we rocked with just a piano, bass and drums in a little room with no PA to speak of. A very enthusiastic new fan was born. I love shit like this.

Saturday I began the morning listening to the newly remastered “Abbey Road” on my friend John Lattanzio’s $20,000 audiophile speakers. As far as I’m concerned, they were worth every penny. It’s been 25 years since I heard the Beatles for the first time. I never thought I’d experience that electric feeling again in this lifetime.

Mick and Andy and I made the five-hour drive up to Mt. Beauty for the next gig. It was called Ian’s Place and then it was called Arby’s Place, and truthfully, we didn’t know what the hell to expect. It turned out to be a former gas station turned into a cool funky ski-lodge. All the work done by Ian…Arby for short, who greeted us at the door. There was a rented PA and no soundman. We set the gear up ourselves and discovered that there were no power cords at all. Showtime was in an hour. Mick called the store where the gear came from – two hours away on twisty mountain roads. After laying down the situation, he was greeted by stunned silence, followed by a long, impressive volley of swearing that almost made the whole thing worthwhile. Ian, in typically resourceful Aussie style, headed across the street to the local pub (and the only pub) and came back bearing aloft double handfuls of power cords. We soundchecked and gobbled dinner. The gig was unexpectedly great. A little like a house concert, but on a larger scale…they came from miles around. After it was over, Ian, Mick, Andy and I stood in the kitchen eating pizza and local homemade sausage and telling road stories. There was no discussion of sitting down to eat. We were male, and there were no women around to make us sit. It was a glorious evening.

After a big Aussie brekky in the mountain air, we headed back to Melbourne. My wife Karen had flown in that morning and set up camp at the swanky Langham Hotel, downtown by the river. After weeks of living low, I felt like an interloper as I checked my grimy bags and my grimy self into the room, where I found my much-missed girl waiting for me. And then, I was an interloper no more…

Part 4

I sit in an idyllic spot. French doors open onto a fairytale bedroom behind me. Before me is a Seussian grove of strange Australia flora and birds of every possible color and description. I am at the Pinda Lodge in Margaret River. This is wine country, the Napa of Oz. We are retreating from the road for two days, after being hard upon it for the last week. It’s hard to believe we only landed here in Western Australia just over a week ago.

This part of the journey began in Perth, the world’s most isolated capital city, where we were picked up by David from the Perth Blues Club and his teenage son Ben. We crammed way too much luggage into way too little car and sped off for our lodging, seventeen-year-old Ben at the wheel. Father-son banter was amusing, and an intriguing mixture of rebellious teen vs. dad, and two old friends busting balls. Finally we arrived…in the wrong driveway. What a difference one number can make. Further checking of the directions rectified the mistake. We were staying with Kirsty, Pugsley Buzzard’s sister. A very cool chick.

The following morning, I was on RTR radio with a host whose preparation was so thorough it bordered on stalking. I mean, she knew everything about me. It made for some unusually good radio. And reaffirmed my belief that being truly good at one’s job requires just a touch of manageable mental illness. I mean this in the best possible way.

After this we headed back to the airport to pick up Trysette. David, who works for the Australian Department of Conservation when not making things happen for the Blues Club, took us for lunch and walkabout in a lovely park and gave us instruction on all manner of local flora and fauna. The weather was glorious, the park was lovely, the view of Perth from the bridge breathtaking.

At four, we were at the Perth ABC radio station, where I did a song and a short interview with the host, who was phoning in by remote from the big cricket match. It was the playoffs or something. I could give a fuck about cricket. But it was a good interview. I like the ABC.

Perth Blues Club was located in a big room attached to a nondescript hotel. The club had pretty much remade a formerly pedestrian bar-slash-function room according to it’s own vision. Great sound, great lighting, big stage. Everything first rate. The grand piano was all miked and ready to go when I got there and it was the possibly the best live piano miking job I have encountered in 20 years of playing for a living. This soundman really got it. I wanted to take him with me.

Mick (Malouf) the bass player and Andy (Byrnes) the drummer had flown in that morning, and met us there. It was heaven to have the band back. It was a damn good show.

The following day, we did our tourist thing at the wildlife park, and then it was off to Ellington’s Jazz Club for the show. This room is booked by Graham Wood, a very good jazz pianist. He was in L.A. for a day or two a few months ago and I got to meet him there. Everything about this room was right, from the food to the nine-foot Steinway concert grand to the décor to the sound to the lighting to the crowd. The gig was such a pleasure. Nothing like a club conceived of and run by another musician. After the show, the bartender kept the drinks coming, and the whole band got a nice buzz going on a variety of local wines. I felt apart from it all, as I always do when I’m sober and everyone else is not, but I also felt a great warm satisfaction. These people were beginning to feel like family to me.

The next morning, Karen and I left for Broome, a three-hour flight north from Perth. This was where the red-dirt Kimberley meets the hot, humid tropical coast. The first thing that happened was the guy that was supposed to pick us up was not there. This is how you know you’re in the tropics. The guy that is supposed to pick you up is either: A: not there. B: there, but drunk. C. Extremely late…and possibly still drunk. I called the venue, nobody knew anything, but after much pointless negotiation, I finally got them to send someone. We were officially on “Broome Time.” Island Time…I knew it well.

We made the five-minute drive over to Beaches of Broome, where we would be camped out for the next four days. The place turned out to be a backpacker hostel, but we had a private room – small, but pretty nice. We actually didn’t even know it was a hostel ‘til the next day when we discovered there were no towels and shampoo, and no one came to make up the room.

We began our day with the complimentary breakfast, which was really the complimentary toast and instant coffee – followed by a scandalously expensive cab-ride over to the Kimberley ABC radio station downtown. The desert was burning, smoke hovered over the town and the radio was reporting on it fervidly. I felt a little trivial in comparison when I went on the air to talk about my shows in town and my new CD, but perhaps the diversion was helpful. It was a nice little interview in any case.

After that we explored the downtown as much as the heat would allow. The architecture was a combination of corrugated tin-roof Aussie outback and classic Chinatown. Pearling was the whole reason this town came to be, and the pearl shops abounded. Tourist season was winding down and the streets were very slow and quiet. We decided on lunch at a Thai place that had an inviting beach oyster-shack look to it, and ended up being served the best Thai food we’d ever eaten. Some of the best food we’ve ever had, period. We were the only people in there. We took the bus back to the hotel – we’d learned our lesson about the cabs.

The gig for the first two days was in a place called Divers Tavern, a big rambling place up near Cable Beach on the outskirts of town. It was a combined pub, drive-thru liquor store, and restaurant. Soundcheck consisted of us trying to figure out why the piano sounded like shit while a cataclysmically drunk guy stood at the edge of the stage yelling: “let me get up there and have a go!! Drum and bass, drum and bass! Let me have a go!! I’ll blow you awaaaaay!” He would not let go of his burning, drunken desire to “have a go.”

We were playing in a cavernous open-air bar where sports played on five screens, you could bet on harness and dog racing, and shoot pool. I was filled with dread. The crowd was sparse, all locals. At least eighty per-cent male. Local guys in wife-beater t-shirts out for a few stubbies with their mates. Nothing at all wrong with the place, I just didn’t want to be playing there. Karen did the opening set and was rocking, considering the circumstances. I did the closing sets. Some guy actually requested a song called “Boys From The Bush.” I’m not making this up. The crowd was neither hostile nor overly enthusiastic. It was just a bar gig. I hated it. Every beer-soaked, pool-shooting, dart-throwing, ashtray-smelling, request-shouting, loud, drunken minute of it.

At the end of the night, the guy that books the place came around, and he was a really great guy. We discussed the local deadly creatures, and he gave us a ride back to the hotel. He is akin to many of the perfectly wonderful girls who will never understand why I dated them once and never called again. It’s not you, it’s me!

The next day I was a sulky little bitch, and a trial for my wife to be around. She actually quit playing music altogether ten years ago because of gigs like this, but was handling the situation much better than I was. That’s because she is an adult. And I am not. We filled the day with tourist activities. Several walks on the beach, where we unsuccessfully attempted to track the elusive sand bubbler crab in its natural habitat. A trip to the crock park, where the crocodiles were so well fed that a large population of ibis and spoonbills hung about the place, unconcerned with being eaten. Lunch at a kickback little beachside restaurant. And after much talk about how we weren’t going to do the camel ride on the beach, because everybody does that…we did the camel ride on the beach. We rode a camel named Diesel along the white sand beach as the sun set over the Indian Ocean. And gladly paid ten bucks for the photo at the end. Then we played Diver’s Tavern again. It was the same.

The third gig was an early show at Matso’s Brewery in town. This was much better, an outdoor stage in a magnificent setting, with gourmet food and an attentive crowd that was there to hear music. Someone was supposed to bring a keyboard for me, and the guy from the venue didn’t know anything about it, and several phone calls were made and missed and finally it showed up.

Me: “The guy said he was going to bring it.” Venue booker: “Yeah, but this is Broome.”

Most of the crowd were tourists from Perth and they dug the show. Everyone working there was very nice and helpful and wonderful. We sold CDs off of a large red rock under a palm tree next to the stage. And then ate a world-class dinner. My mojo was back.

The next morning we partook of an ocean kayak excursion, blissed out at the swank Bali Hai spa, and ate a very good white-tablecloth lunch. “Next time we come to Broome,” I said, “It will be as tourists.”

Back in Perth, David from the blues club picked us up and we made the three hour run down to Margaret River, where we met Andrew Witt, also from the Perth Blues Club, at his family house down there, “Witt’s End.” It’s been a real joy to befriend these two guys…more welcome additions to our extended family of the road. And Witt’s End turned out to be the best vacation spot of them all. There were wildlife and picture-postcard views, barbecue and great conversation, an excellent selection of CDs, and many laughs. A piano. And free wifi! Heaven.

And now our four-day break is about to come to an end at this fine little lodge here by the river. I am ready to get back out there and make some noise.

Part 5

I think the guy who brought the PA that night said it best:
“They keep trying to introduce culture to Nannup, and it keeps getting rejected. Tonight’s just another example.”

We drove for hours through a thick forest to get to the isolated town of Nannup, in the Southeastern corner of Western Australia. There were none of the random, isolated dwellings you usually see on the road from one country town to another. No trailers with broken down cars in the yard, no trim, cute little farmhouses. Nothing but forest. Aside from Perth, a thriving metropolis like any other, Western Australia can be disconcertingly underpopulated.

Every person we encountered in this part of the world laughed ominously when I told them we had a gig coming up in Nannup, so I had a foreboding feeling that we were headed for a fiasco. The band pooh-poohed this as negativity on my part. They were all way too experienced in the ways of the road to be wearing these particular rose-colored glasses, but I admired their positive spirit.

From the moment we were accosted in the dirt parking lot by a local who wanted to know “if we were going to do some Abba” and who, upon being denied that particular request, elaborated threateningly that “we better play country, then,” I knew we were the wrong band in the wrong bar.

Andy the drummer had flown in from Sydney that day with his wife and arrived in a separate car. Qantas had lost his cymbals. You can’t really have drums without cymbals. The claim was that as soon as they located this lost luggage, a courier would drive it down from Perth to Nannup – almost four hours. I held little hope that this event would transpire, but as we were setting up, the courier arrived, cymbals in hand. It was all downhill from there.

We had borrowed a keyboard for these three dates from a friend of a friend. It was a Roland digital piano of mid 90s vintage. I had owned the very same keyboard myself in the mid 90s, and I knew it was trouble. However, I was getting it for the price of a bottle of whisky, which was just about what I could afford. Like many Roland products, the concept was great but the execution was terrible. Keys break, strange, gig-ending electronic glitches occur. A piece of machinery ill-suited for the rigors of the road, where your shit has to work. Every night. No excuses.

About twenty minutes into Karen’s opening set, the keyboard suddenly changed keys. There I was, playing an A minor chord, and a B-minor chord was happening instead. The band and my wife stared in horror. I was sure I had lost my few remaining marbles. I know I’m playing the right fucking chord! I thought. As the band played on, I turned the keyboard off and then on again. This reboot seemed to solve the problem. Like the fucking thing was running on Windows 95. It held for the rest of the evening. I spent that time preying none of the keys would snap off.

Early the next we headed out for Denmark, some four hours away on the far south coast. The venue was in a striking location on a hill overlooking the Southern Ocean, nothing but thousands of miles of churning sea and Antarctica to the south.

The place was booked by a musician, so he had our back. I did a quick radio interview for the local station, the six of us had dinner and then we did the show.

It was one of those small towns populated mostly by people who had moved from bigger towns to get away from it all. Well-educated types, musicians, artists, young hippies, old hippies. We met a guy who had moved there from Philly with the money he made from his self-started fitness empire. That sort of thing. My kind of crowd. They were with us from the start. Some sat, some writhed pleasantly around the perimeter, doing that Grateful Dead dance. I love that shit. There was one point where that connection got made in which you feel the room is about to levitate. Those are the moments we do this for. The keyboard changed keys again at almost exactly the same time. I restarted and got on with it. It was just part of the show now.

The next day, another four hour drive back up to Margaret River and our last show in W.A. – Cape Lodge. Cape Lodge is the swankiest and most expensive retreat in the west of Australia, but still, nothing prepared us for the treatment we got there. As soon as we arrived, the misses and I were whisked off to a five-star suite the size of our apartment, while the band were taken to equally well-appointed cabins on the lush and peaceful grounds. The place was so impeccable I felt like I was soiling it by just standing there. A sound company brought in staging, lights and sound for the show and set up everything while we rested and washed off the road grime. The wife was very pleased.

About an hour before showtime, armies of waitstaff brought course after course of high-end tucker. This was a gig? It was hard to believe. If we’d been patrons here, this food plus the room probably would have set us back two large.

The show was transcendent from beginning to end, the crowd had paid $120 a head for a “Jazz Soirée With Bob Malone” and they were primed and ready to dig the show. But during the first song, the keyboard changed keys three times. And it did it again in every one of the next four songs. The reboot thing became way too disruptive, so I just started playing in the new key as it would happen. Good thing I went to music school! I remained calm, told jokes about it, and the adversity got the crowd even more on our side. I turned it to my advantage. About halfway through the show, the trouble stopped and we wrapped it up unmolested by any further electronic mayhem. With two encores. It was a memorable night. A very fine way to end this part of the tour…this would be my last show with this band until next year. We toasted our good fortune, and headed back to our plush rooms.

Part 6

Midnight, the Establishment Hotel. Sydney CBD. I like this place. It’s got that modern décor, but it’s all about uncluttered feng shui and not form-over-function run amok. And it’s got free internet. Australians have to pay in blood to get online. They are getting hosed like you wouldn’t believe. $20 an hour to get online in a hotel is not unusual. $40 a day. $10 a minute! They need to have an uprising here.

Two weeks ago, we left Western Australia. Karen flew home to LA, the band flew back to Sydney. I headed for tropical Queensland. I would be finishing this tour solo. Gerry and Carmen picked me up from the Brisbane Airport and we headed to their house in Montville. A stunning part of the world up there. The Sunshine Coast Hinterlands. Spent three days at the house eating Carmen’s addictive cooking, observing the wildlife in the backyard rainforest, cooling off in the pool. Paradise among friends. Then I headed out for my outback adventure.

I flew from Brizzy up to Townsville. The promoter picked me up, and dropped me off at the wrong hotel. There wasn’t much in the way of signage, so I didn’t realize it was the wrong hotel. Then I handed the front desk clerk the printout of my prepaid reservation, with the name of a different hotel on it. He gives me a key and says to have a nice stay. Unbelievable. I have lunch at the café in the lobby, go up to my room, do my OCD thing with the toiletries, and just as I’m dozing off on the bed…the phone. A new front desk person had come on, and she finally figured out that I was checked into the wrong hotel.

So packed up my shit and walked four blocks down to the Holiday Inn, where they were indeed expecting me.

Welcome back to the tropics.

The gig tonight was at the Court Theatre, a very nice joint. Attendance was light, but the crowd was enthusiastic. After three weeks of touring with the band, going back to playing solo again was shocking. Nothing felt right, nothing achieved liftoff, nothing moved me. I found myself bored with myself. I forged ahead, detached, and hating myself for it.

An old man who had seen me play the jazz fest here the previous year, came up to me during the intermission, and said: “last year when you played the jazz fest, my wife enjoyed it so much that she stayed all day, dancing to the other bands, waiting for you to come on again for your late show. She died three weeks later." Then he turned and walked away, weeping. I did not phone in the next set.

The next morning I am on an 8-seat prop plane headed for Richmond, deep in the Queensland outback. Nothing much on the ground between Townsville and Richmond but scrub and baking heat.

The airport was one runway, one windsock, and one doublewide trailer. I got off the plane alone, nobody else got on. The sole airport employee took my bag off the plane and handed it to me on the runway.

I was here to play the October Moon Jazz Festival. The booking agent told me: “don’t think of it as a gig. It’s more of an adventure.” And besides, the money was good. I was game…this was surely a corner of the world I never would have seen had I not come here to play music. Those are the best places. Music has taken me to Paris, London, Rome, Sydney, Tokyo and Stockholm, and I have loved them all, but it’s the out of the way places I never would have thought to go that always stick with me the most.

The volunteer from the fest drove me into town…all three blocks of it. There was the health clinic, the grocer, the hardware store, the news-agent (who was also the guy who ran the airport trailer), the clothing store, the library, the butchery (LOCALLY KILLED BEEF! trumped the sign). One pub that served food, and one plain old bar that also doubled as a liquor store. And in the center, the crown jewel of the second block: Kronosaurus Korner. The first fossil of Kronosaurus, the largest creature ever to inhabit the seas, was discovered right here in Richmond, which was under water 100 million years ago. Kronosaurus Korner was an oversized Quonset hut housing a pretty impressive fossil collection, and a café.

I was dropped off at the Ammonite Motel. Not too bad, not too good, a motel like any other.

An hour later I was taken to the local school, which housed every grade from K thru 12 in one building. I played for and talked to three separate groups of kids of varying ages. Sometimes they asked questions about music, more often they wanted to know if I knew any famous people (“not biblically” I offered.) and if there were a lot of “flash cars” in LA, and if I had one. I thought the kids were mostly delightful, especially when they were saying things that the teachers thought would offend me.

By noon, it was all over and I was back in my cinderblock-walled room at the Ammonite. Alone, with the rest of the day and night ahead of me, I headed out to explore the town. I spent a good part of the day alone in the museum with the fossils, which I enjoyed quite a bit, as I am quite the nerd. Had a pretty good lunch at the café, and rambled up and down the three blocks of the town, ending at the library.

I pulled up to one of the ancient library PCs to check my email, and as I did, a few of the local school kids who had seen me earlier stared openly and unabashedly…like Jesus had just walked into the local library. I was really uncomfortable. Eventually, the place emptied out, and I fell into a conversation with the librarian, who looked and talked like anything but a librarian. He was a true Aussie bloke, from his bush hat down to his Dryzabone. I asked if I could check out a couple of books without having a library card. He said: “I’ve seen you on the posters around town, I guess I know where I can find you. Just drop ‘em in the chute before you leave town, mate. We’re closed on the weekend!” We stood outside talking as the sun went down, this was the kind of place where conversation is a commodity and time is made for it. I commented on the giant spider trundling up the wall (“that’s just a baby!” he said). He also confessed that he was a big Rush fan, and “that’s not the kind of band you want to talk about in this town.” A lonely prog rock afficiando in a desert of country music fans. So we discussed Neal Peart’s fantastic drumming, the merits of “Red Barchetta,” etc. He was so happy, I felt I had done a truly good deed. And I’m not even that big of a Rush fan.  

Later I was taken to the restaurant by the ladies who put on the jazz fest. They were the small town version of the “Ladies that lunch” – all quite nice, and very glad to have me there. Grandmotherly in demeanor. I feared someone would pinch my cheek before the night was through.

The gig was on a small stage under a gum tree, lakeside. About three-hundred people gathered for the festivities, which included performances by a local country duo, the winner of last year’s Australian national karaoke contest, a little girl in her first year of violin lessons playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and a few of the local piano students, plunking out what they had learned. It was more church social than music festival. I was the sole professional act, on which they had blown all their money.

It was small-town and profoundly unsophisticated, but these were good and kind people. There was none of the barely contained small-town anger and proud ignorance that one so often encounters in the hinterlands of any country. They were deeply unhip, but they were civilized.

Sometime around two am, back at the motel room, I was taken with the first cramps and nausea that sent me running for the bathroom, where I would spend much of the next 24 hours, deep in the throes of a terrible stomach virus. After the worst of the exodus of my stomach contents was over, a fever followed. Somewhere in my delirium, I stumbled out to the street, desperate to locate food and aspirin, only to find a completely deserted town. Not a car or a soul stirred as far as I could see. Only the wind disrupted the perfect silence. I made it back to the bed just as the phone rang. One of the ladies from the festival. Apparently the whole town had been struck with this same virus, everything was closed, the health clinic was swamped beyond capacity. So apparently “The Stand” was not just a popular work of fiction by Stephen King, but prophesy. Captain Trips had arrived to take me away. One of the festival ladies brought me soup and aspirin. There is nothing greater than the kindness of strangers.

The last two gigs of the tour were house concerts on the south coast of New South Wales. Trysette rejoined me, this time as the opening act. And Mick volunteered to drive and play some guitar.

Two nights in a row we played for delightful crowds in idyllic country houses, complete with chickens. Nothing wrong with that!

And now I am back in Sydney, awaiting my flight home. I am ready. Just as I am always ready for the next adventure, I am always ready to return home.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lost in the House of Shred

I went to see a fantastic guitar player tonight. His name is not important here. He's one of those guys you've heard, but probably never heard of, unless you're an inveterate reader of album liner notes. I have seen many such players, often as their opening act. They have an unquestionable command of their StratTeleLes Paul or whatever, and the kind of tone it takes a lifetime of obsession to attain. Most of the set will consist of modal one-chord vamps where the idea is to get to the guitar solo as quickly as possible. They almost always work in a power trio format with bass and drums. There will be no singing. There will be no other soloists. There will be a Hendrix cover for an encore. Musically, they may lean in a rock or a jazz or a blues direction, but the point of the thing is always loud and extremely proficient electric guitar.

But no matter the style, the crowd is always the same: an audience made up entirely of other guys who play guitar. There's usually no more than four or five women in attendance; always the wife or girlfriend of a guy who plays guitar. Alone with her drink...annoyed and bored out of her tits. This cult is specific only to guitar players. Only the guitar is so widely played that one can have a successful career catering only to other players of the instrument, utterly free of the obligation to provide any musical content that will make the proceedings palatable to a non-musician. Or a non-guitarist.

So I sat there tonight, a piano player in a strange land. And while, as a fellow musician, I sincerely admired the guitarist's mastery of his instrument, dedication to his craft, and unwillingness to pander to the masses, I have to admit that there was one more bored chick in the audience. And it was me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rockpile on the Road

I’m at the airport, where are you?” I said.
“In my hotel room! Got some Chinese food, got some HBO, I’m settled in for the night!” said Christa (that’s Christa Hillhouse, my bass player on this tour).
“I thought you were picking me up.”
“You never told me anything about that. Uhhh…can you catch a cab?”

I had been on the road for two months, coordinating details about hotels and cars and vans and bands and rental instruments from New York to New England, Perth to Sydney. And finally, here in Chicago, I had fucked up. Left myself stranded at O’Hare with no ride and no hotel room.

I took a seat on my suitcase, pulled out the iPhone, and pointed my browser towards 10 minutes later, I had scored a sweet deal on a room at the venerable Allerton Hotel, right on the Miracle Mile in Downtown Chicago. Sometimes the best results are due to poor planning.

I dragged my baggage down to the CTA station, and caught the train headed for The Loop. Even after flying all day, and still in the last stages of a brutal Australia jet lag, I was filled with the wonder and exhilaration of a child. I had not played Chicago in years, had never taken the subway here, had never stayed at an old-school downtown Chicago hotel. It was a minor adventure, but an adventure all the same.

It was a week before Thanksgiving, and the city was decked for the holidays. I arrived at the Allerton. A fine jazz singer named Erin McDougald was running through “April in Paris” with an exceptional band in the lounge barely 15 feet from the checkout desk. It was bliss, a gift from the gods of all I love. I headed for my room on the fourteenth floor, planning to come back later for Erin’s last set. I needed a shower, a change of clothes and a Chicago Dog. In that order.

Advice from the bellhop regarding the location of a good Chicago dog sent me on a 10-minute walk to Portillo’s. A real institution of a place, and a beacon of local color in the midst of the depressing chain crap I had to walk past on the way there. Almost everything true to the character of the city had been forced out by the usual bright lights and bullshit of Hard Rock Café, Mc Donalds, Cheesecake Factory, etc. They will not stop til every place is the same place, and we all feed from the same trough, and all who do not toe the corporation line will be marginalized as foot-dragging throwbacks. Oh wait, that day has already come. It has, in fact, been here all of my adult life. I was born too late to be a hippie radical, but I understand the concept…anyway, where was I?

Portillo’s, besides being the home of a fine Chicago Dog, was also famous for the Italian Beef – kind of a Chicago Dog with roast beef and au jus instead of the hot dog. So I got one of those, too.

Sated beyond all expectations, I headed back to the hotel, caught the last set, and repaired to my room under the gloriously archaic neon glow of the Tip Top Tap sign.


Day two. Back at Portello’s, I am reunited with musicians and poets I never see enough of. The musicians are Christa Hillhouse and Marc Singer. I have been touring on a shoestring for 12 years now. Almost everybody tours on a shoestring nowadays…it’s a brave new world out there. The way I make it affordable is to have five bands. West Coast, Central, East Coast, Europe, Australia. This keeps the expenses for flights and backline and hotel rooms to something I can actually afford. I have a public FTP folder online with charts and MP3s for all of my songs. I hire players, they download the charts and tunes, I show up, we play, sounding as if we’ve been rehearsing. At this point, it’s a well-oiled machine. There’s always a drummer and bass player. If the money is great, I’ll add a guitar player and a horn section. Christa and Marc are my “Central” band. Based in Omaha, they do any gig I have west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies.

The most amazing thing about these guys is that I found them in Omaha, of all places. Christa formed a band in San Francisco in the early 90s called Four Non Blondes, sold six million records and went all the way to the top of Rockstar Mountain. Marc was a session drummer in LA throughout the 70s and 80s. Toured with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jerry Jeff Walker and Taj Mahal. Hit records he played on include “Another One Bites The Dust,” and “Copacabana.” And he played with Elvis. Presley, that is. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Both Christa and Marc found themselves in Omaha because of people they fell in love with. And they both have a never-ending supply of amazing stories to tell.

The poets are Michael Rothenberg, his partner Terry Carrion, and David Meltzer. I met Rothenberg back in 1991. I had just moved to LA – a green 24-year-old kid, fresh off the boat from New Jersey. I had lucked into a publishing deal with Criterion Music. Dan Howell, who is sadly no longer with us, was my man there, and he introduced Michael and I. “You guys have GOT to write songs together!” he said. And so we did. Rothenberg is pure artist, unsullied by any commercial considerations. Yet he still makes his living as a poet. Because he’s that good. He has also become known at the editor of Philip Whalen’s work.

My entire income has been tied to music since the age of 18, so as hard as I try not to get stuck at that intersection where art and commerce meet, sometimes I still do. Working with Mike always reminds me of what’s important.

Meltzer is a legend. One of the original beats, a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac, he was present at the birth of a whole new artform. Even at 72, his eyes shine with the curiosity of a child…he is always the youngest person in the room. So many people – most people – follow the rules, deny their hearts, peak in high school, and are walking around dead by the age of 30. Meltzer will go to the ungently into that good night with no regrets. Curious, engaged, charismatic, and fully alive to the end.

I want to be David Meltzer when I grow up.

We shared a long and laugh-filled lunch, one of those moments that make the road such a worthwhile place to be. Then we were off to soundcheck.

Marc and Christa and I headed for The Hideout in Christa’s truck, guided by the trusty GPS. We landed in front of a wood frame house in an uninhabited warehouse district. “This can’t be the place!” we said. But upon entry, we discovered it was indeed the place. A little slice of hipster heaven, away from the generic tourist jazz, blues, and rock clubs on Rush Street.

There was a battered old upright piano on stage. One of those very tall, hundred year old monsters; scarred with generations of cigarette burns and missing most of the ivory from its keys, as if it had a mouthful of broken teeth. I have done battle with pianos like this for three decades. Starting with the one I played as a child at my grandmother’s house. My entire life is just a blip on the timeline of one of these instruments. As I approached the beast, I expected that it would be tired, worn, rotten, out of tune, and barely functional. It was none of these things. It was amazingly well cared for, shockingly so, considering it’s bashed exterior. All the keys were working smoothly, it was in tune. It was a pleasure to play! And there was a pickup installed in the back. All I had to do was sit back and wait for the sound man to arrive. Sweet.

The concept of the Rockpile Tour was for Meltzer and Rothenberg to put on shows in various cities and feature local musicians and poets along with their own work. Tonight there were many people on the bill. The night kicked off with an avalanche of excruciating noise from an avant-garde group led by a local music professor. At first I thought I was just too unhip to get what was going on, Then I came to my senses: I didn’t give a shit if I got it or not. I don’t ever want to be that hip. I retreated to the dressing room and waited for it to be over.

I played solo piano behind a couple of local poets. Then Marc and Christa joined me for my set. We were shockingly conventional-sounding after the atonal self-indulgence that had preceded us. It was a little disconcerting to find myself in this position. Anywhere else, I would be the artsy act on the bill…not that I’m all that artsy, but context is everything.

The audience, hipsters all, responded with enthusiastic relief. There’s music you pretend to like so other cool people will think you’re cool, and then there’s the shit you crank and sing along to and cry over and live your life to in your car when you are alone. I was fulfilling the role of the latter.

That was just fine with me.

The night continued on with a constantly shifting cast of players backing various other poets. Then Terri came on, and we set up the funkiest groove of the night while she mesmerized the room. With Michael we built to a frenzied peak before Meltzer’s closing set. He was riveting, as always. His delivery is as close to singing as you can get without singing. We set up a mid-tempo blues, and he speaks his poetry with the rhythmic finesse of a great jazz singer. At the end, the musicians leave the stage, and he gives us goosebumps with a solo reading of “When I Was A Poet.”

Live poetry reading gets a bad rap for being silly, precious, self-important, and about as exciting as watching grass grow. Which is a real shame, because when it’s done right, it’s nothing but greatness. This makes me wish that everyone could see what I saw this night.


For the next two days, we parted ways with the poets and played two regular Malone band shows. The first was at Foundry Hall in South Haven, MI. We didn’t know what to expect, and what we got exceeded all expectations. The place was conceived and run by a singer-songwriter named Andru Bemis, and it was a funky DIY musician’s heaven. Andrew himself was onstage tuning the piano when we arrived, after which he moved behind the board to do our soundcheck. This guy did everything! Great sound, great acoustics, theatre-style seating for 120 or so. We were fed by the awesome staff and waited backstage. Wondering whom, if anyone, was going to show up to see us play in this remote, idyllic little Norman Rockwell town on the shore of Lake Michigan. By the time the opening act went on, the place was full. We were elated, we knew it was going to be a great one. And it was.

The next day was Club Soda (get it? Get it?) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The guy that ran the place was a real sweetheart, the food was great. It looked like it was going to be ok. But it was a pitcher-plant gig. Pure 80’s fern-bar hell. Small town midwestern yuppies-with-training wheels. Someone actually came up and tried to hand me a napkin with a request on it while I was playing and singing. Just standing there, one foot away while I gave all that had to the indifferent crowd, unable to understand why I wouldn’t stop what I was doing so she could tell me to play “Piano Man.” Christa finally told her to fuck off. When it was over, we left skidmarks getting out of there.

Christa and I were sharing a room at a Holiday Inn Express somewhere in some part of Indiana. One of those places you see too often in America that is every other place and no place all at once. I was shaken from my slumber at 8 am sharp by Christa’s boombox bumpin’ “Straight Out Of Compton” at full volume. It was better than coffee…made me want to take out my gat and pop a cap in someone’s ass.

We had an excruciating drive ahead of us – Fort Wayne to Omaha. Eleven hours of straight flat interstate. The gig was at five o’clock. When I booked it, well…it seemed like a good idea at the time.

By the time we got to Omaha, we were knackered. But the show goes on. It was more than worth the drive. I have played Omaha quite a bit over the last few years and have a loyal and wonderful fan base there. The horror that was Fort Wayne was erased from our collective memories. Marc and Christa went home to their own beds with their respective loved-ones, I hit the hotel room and slept for 12 hours.

We rejoined our Rockpile cohorts in St. Louis for the final show of the tour at the RAC Arts Center. There was a crazy woman running the place. One of those people we sometimes encounter who believe that their arts venue would be perfect if they just didn’t have to deal with all the fucking artists. A spiritual twin to the sound guy who hates musicians. The place was full, and the show was much like the one we did in Chicago, minus the avant-garde buzz-kill. We all parted ways, feeling lucky indeed that we got to do this.

I arrived home one day before Thanksgiving, with much to be thankful for.