Snapshots From the Road

  • Picture 1: Expect the Unexpected
  • Picture 2: Raindrops on Roses and Autobahn Rest Stops
  • Picture 3: Don’t Leave Home Without It
  • Picture 4: Let Them Come To You
  • Picture 1: Expect the Unexpected
    One of the first things just about any touring musician learns is to expect the unexpected. For all the planning that goes into a tour, you just never know what’s going to happen. For example, you could be at JFK, ready to board your plane, when word comes that there was a problem with the guitar player’s flight and he’s not gonna make it in time for the first concert. That is, he might make it if he buys a $6000 ticket that’ll route him through Paris, where (even if $6000 wasn’t laugh out loud funny) there’s a general strike that could keep him in Paris for days.
    Did I say that could happen? Of course, it’s exactly what did happen. If you happened to be at the Delta terminal at about 7 pm last Tuesday, that was me, frantically calling my agent (while trying not to think about the roaming charges for the three calls it took to find him; and considering that it was 1 am in Berlin, why, oh why did I call office first, cell second, and home last? is it possible I wasn’t thinking clearly?), and blathering, “Michael’s not going to get to Berlin till Thursday! We need a sub for tomorrow night! Can you get a pianist or guitarist? My plane is boarding, gotta go!” after which Ken and I boarded, knowing nothing else but that something would happen.
    By the time we arrived next morning, Jimi (my agent) had contacted Kelvin Sholar, a young American pianist who lives in Berlin. Kelvin was available for the concert, and could arrive at the A-Trane early for a rehearsal. Whew. Of course, I was still concerned; I do a lot of original music and unusual arrangements, and you never know if someone is going to be a good stylistic match, so we weren’t exactly home free. But, still: whew.
    Now, when you’ve flown overnight, arrived in the morning, and your gig starts at 10 pm, you want the day spend the day relaxing, sleeping, maybe taking a walk. And that was the plan, but you know what they say about those. Instead, I grabbed a couple hours’ sleep and a shower, and started thinking about the set. Fortunately, I happened to have with me a CD of mixes from the new recording, which meant Kelvin could hear, and get the feel of, some of the tunes. Even more importantly, Kelvin’s a good reader, he listens, and he got the sound, the vibe, and brought his talents beautifully to mesh with what we were doing. The fact that this can happen is something I love about good jazz players and improvisers; I’m not sure if most non-musicians realize the extraordinarily high level of musicianship of so many jazz musicians, the kind of skill that means people who’ve never played together before can make good music. So the first big sigh of relief was how well the concert at the A-Trane went. The second was that when Ken and I went to the airport next morning to pick up our rental car, Michael was there waiting for us, having arrived on the same flight he’d been booked on originally, a day later. We loaded up the car, and headed to the next city. Here we are with our host in Köln, Paul Link, on Michael’s left. ➔

    Picture 2: Raindrops on Roses and Autobahn Rest Stops
    I really enjoy going on tour. You get to see new places and to meet wonderful people under the best of circumstances. And I don’t tour so often, or go out for so long, that I’m jaded or weary of it. There are inconveniences, though. When I travel long distances, I often end up in a situation in which I need to eat now. If it’s in the U.S., we’ll pull into a gas station or truck stop convenience store and, my blood sugar already having gone off the meter, I’ll wander through aisles of crap calling itself food, unable to figure out what to eat. And if I need to use the facilities, well, I’m shaking in my boots. Whenever possible, I send someone else in first so they can give me a report as to whether it’s safe.
    Food and facilities are two of the reasons I count rest stops on the Autobahn among My Favorite Things. I’ll get to the third reason in a moment. First, look at this picture. ➸ This is a salad bar. At a rest stop. And it’s not an anomaly. You can get all kinds of decent food at German rest stops. You’re not condemned to hot dogs and egg McMuffins. And I’m a vegetarian, so finding a decent salad (not to mention several additional options) when I’m on the road is an absolute blessing.
    Reason #2 for loving Autobahn rest stops: the bathrooms. They are clean and well supplied. They are clean and well supplied. They are clean and well supplied. They have self-cleaning toilets: self-cleaning toilets at truck stops, I tell you! The 70 cents you give up to gain entry is money well spent. Besides, you get back a ticket for 50 cents, which you can then use toward a purchase in the restaurant or shop.
    Which brings me to my third favorite thing: really good coffee. I kid not. In the U.S., Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks are the gold standards for decent on-the-road coffee. This is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about German coffee culture (ever see this movie?) and the fact that you can get a good, not just good-for-on-the-road, but actual  good coffee out of a machine at German rest stops. My favorite is café crème which, despite what it sounds like, is just black coffee with a frothy top layer (no milk or cream, just coffee).

    Picture 3: Don’t Leave Home Without It
    Speaking of coffee, lack of sufficient sleep, especially when crossing time zones, is almost always a problem when you’re touring. I recently discovered No Jet Lag, a plant-based homeopathic remedy. I won’t say I experienced no jet lag whatsoever, but I think it helped. And then a shot of 5 Hour Energy got me through the first night’s concert in Berlin.

    Now, show me a working singer and I’ll show you someone who’s worried about catching a cold. I’ve sung sick, I’ve sung tired. I once made it through a gig with a fever of 102°F. But get a sore throat and you’re out of luck. So I always travel with cold pills, throat spray, and various concoctions. I drink a lot of water -very important. Funny thing is, I’m the sort who’d rather not take medication. A few years ago I had a tour in South Africa. When I went to the doctors’ office to get shots, I ran into my old doctor; let’s call him Dr. Feelgood. I liked Dr. Feelgood, but he stopped taking my insurance, so I had to switch to someone else in the same office. When Dr. Feelgood found out I was headed to Cape Town to sing, he suggested I ask the nurse practitioner who’d be giving me the shots for some prescriptions. I did, but all I got from Nurse Ratched was the medical equivalent of “whatevs.” But on my way out, there was Dr. Feelgood again, and he took out his pad and wrote prescriptions for steroids, cough medicine with codeine, and something else I honestly can’t remember…I’m thinking probably Cipro. Fortunately, I didn’t have to use any of them; as I said, I’d rather not take meds. But when people bring you across oceans to sing for them, you want to be able to sing. It’s that simple. To help keep it from getting to that point where medication is necessary, however, a neti pot helps keeps the nasal passages clear (especially useful when feeling vulnerable to colds), and Entertainer’s Secret helps lubricate the throat.
    In the non-pharmaceutical department, there are must-haves for life on the road. ✓ Alarm clocks. You do the gig, you get a little sleep, you get up, you hit the road. You probably need at least two alarms to get you up. ✓ AC adaptors. More than one because you’ve probably got a few things to charge, and little time in the hotel room to do it. ✓ Currency. I’m keeping some Euros aside for the next trip. This is because the last time we went to Germany, Michael and I arrived in Kassel by train, and whoever was supposed to meet us at the station didn’t. I texted the promoter, who texted back that we should take a taxi, for which we’d be reimbursed, to the hotel. Problem was we’d just arrived and had no Euros. And it was pouring buckets. So I left Michael sitting with the bags while I ran around Kassel looking for an ATM. Fortunately, I had an: ✓ Umbrella (see previous). ✓ Batteries, pens, pencils, tape. Because you never know what’s going to happen with your charts, your stand light, tuner, etc. ✓ Snacks. Let’s say you have to teach a master class all afternoon, after which you have barely enough time to shower, dress, and get to the venue for sound check. By which time the afore-mentioned blood sugar has dropped and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Solution: bags of nuts and dried fruit. Cliff Bars. Things that when tossed into a suitcase will fall into the crevices without adding weight, taking up much room, or going bad. ✓ Music. Extra copies. I carry a copy of my charts in my carry-on bag, and additional copies (depending on how many of each we’ll need) in my checked bag. And I’ve started putting the charts onto a flash drive, just in case. ✓ Flexibility and a sense of humor. See above.

    Picture 4: Let Them Come To You
    The first time I ever played in Germany, right before I was about to start the set, someone said, “German audiences aren’t very responsive; don’t let it bother you.” Not a great thing to hear when you’re about to step on stage. But as it turned out, the audience was very warm and very responsive. Later in that tour, we were in in Prague, at a very interesting old jazz club, the kind of place where you feel the musical history in very air. The audience seemed to be very international, and likely including a lot of tourists, many of whom may not have understood  English. Of course, that doesn’t always get in the way. But that night, I was getting almost no energy whatsoever from the audience; I’m not used to that, and I felt myself trying harder and harder to win them over. By the end of the night I was completely exhausted.  Maybe some people liked the music and maybe some didn’t, but my attempts to get a response from them led nowhere. It was a valuable lesson, one that paid off on this  most recent tour. The first night, in Berlin, the audience was audibly appreciative. The next night, in Kassel, they were fairly quiet. First set I found myself starting to fall into that old trap, wondering if they weren’t enjoying the music, wondering what they wanted to hear. And then somewhere along the way I gave that up. I realized that all we could do is what we do, and they’d enjoy it or they wouldn’t.  As it turned out, everyone stayed for the second set, and people were very enthusiastic at the end of the evening. And bought CDs (a good sign). Next night, in Köln, the situation was similar: the audience was very quiet, and I found myself wondering momentarily what I was doing wrong. But then, again, I decided the only thing to do was, well, what we do. This is who we are. And that was right. Because, again, once the concert was over and the people were wonderful. So warm and effusive about the music they’d heard. And I sold  more CDs to that most quiet of audiences than at any other venue this trip. Which brings me full circle to snapshot number 1: Expect the Unexpected. 

    2 Responses to Snapshots From the Road

    1. I love road stories. It is mind blowing how a little thing (or a 6000 dollar thing) can throw off a whole tour. I used to read Ellery Eskelin’s tour diary like a suspense thriller years ago before I did my own touring. I can definitely relate to the awesome coffee everywhere in Europe. We always do espresso or macchiatos and we were never left disappointed. Starbucks in the US often doesn’t even have espresso cups! I usually travel by train and love it ’cause you can get up anytime you like, walk around and even go the dining car and have a beer and a bowl of chili. Sure beats Dunkin’ Donuts.

      • Many, many years ago I spent a few months in a couple of countries that were memorable in so many ways — coffee not being one of them. The cost of enjoying the great beauty and wonderful adventures of those places was the daily penance of limp, pale, slightly coffee-flavored hot water. The first place I landed when heading back home was the train station Rome. Got off the train and headed directly to the beautiful shiny coffee bar right there in the station. Heaven!

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