Nine weeks. That’s 63 days. Roundabouts. That’s 1/6th of a year, which sounds decidedly less impressive, I suppose.
We got Kerrville.
I’m somewhat in a state of shock, with fear and excitement mingling together. Kerrville Folk Festival, the one we were sure we couldn’t get. I just got an email listing me as one of the performers and it’s upended my view of my immediate future. It’s merged two separate trips into one massive country round-about, returning me to where I want to be.
I got the email a couple of hours ago. It’s 5.45am now, and the sun is working it’s way up over the traffic coming over the hill. This is the festival in the hills of Texas. Arlo Guthrie will be playing there. The contest was started by Peter of Peter Paul and Mary.
It is, to put it bluntly, a big fucking deal.
I’ve been lamenting recently how the Trip had almost become mundane. We come back and spend a lot of time in Maryland nowadays. There’s a lot of neccessity tied in there, of course. Between money practicalities, the recording of a new album, and my Father’s health, there have been an awful lot of advantages to being around the
native soil. But I’ve regreted the fact that we haven’t been doing what we set out to. We haven’t been exploring and rummaging and scaring ourselves shitless by being lost in new landscapes. I’ve got the nervous sleepless feeling that I had on September 1st of 2003. The awareness of what I was getting myself into. I’m looking at maps, and part of me is willing the cities to be closer together – willing the points to creep and nestle – but the rest of me is sitting back from the map and looking at the mileage. We’re not even plotting out our stops and I’m up to 4600 miles.
A couple of weeks ago, Kerrville Newfolk Finalists all got an email from a guy named Lindsey Lee. He was getting to the Folk Festival early for “Land Rush” and was offering us all the opportunity to camp in his area, trade some music for breakfast every day. Apparently this is a long-running tradition. Heather and I thought about it for a bit, and said yes.
Thank God we did.
When we first exited onto route 16 from I-10, Kerrville looks to be a collection of gas stations and fast food restaurants. It slowly unfolds, and you find yourself in a pleasant enough, if tiny, dusty town. The Guadelupe River runs through town, there’s a couple of beautiful spots that one spots as one travels through town at a fiercely enforced 35mph.
The campground is “9 miles past the town of Kerrville”. That’s 9 miles of scenic Texan vistas being viewed in the last hours of sunset. Not-quite desert glows red and gold and white and you have time to think about what you’re headed into. Tiny signs point to the Festival Entrance, we pass cows and a camper for sale. Bales of hay – both round and square. (?)
And then you start seeing the tents. Packed against the fence line of Quiet Valley Ranch, hundreds of tents. We’re stopped at the gates and get identified and ushered in with almost zero direction by red-shirted dreadlocked staff and we advance up a dusty driveway and through the bleached wooden gates and we enter – chaos with dirt roads.
I can’t even express the intensity of tents and teepees and campers and school busses and tour busses and Volkswagon busses all pressed against one another in the Texas dust. People are wandering everywhere, and the occasional car is edging its way up the paths. One in three people seems to be carrying a guitar, and you can already hear music floating towards you in a chaotic menagerie of sound that pushes into you from all directions.
Rolling the windows back up, we breathed our last moments of air-conditioned air. It’s 95 as the shadows get longer.
It takes us a while to find Lindsey’s camp. In the process we’re turned around, redirected – and finally we find ourselves with a plot of ground all to our own, hedged in by a tent on one side, a tarp on another, a truck on another side and fire ants on the other.
Good a spot as any.
As darkness falls, we park the car and return to our camp. Heather’s put up our ilyAIMY poster (which allows David Morrealle to find us, wondering at first if we were over-zealous fans) and we wander over to meet our neighbours.
It took me a while to understand the concept of the individual “camps” within Kerrville. Though we were officially guests of the Rouse camp., next door to us was Camp Kantigree, and we ended up spending most of our time with them. The Rouse Camp (I’m sort of informally naming that from what I heard people saying to one another, unlike most of the ill-defined territories, this one didn’t have an identifying sign that I spotted – though Heather probably saw something) had been the creation and tradition of Bruce Rouse who had passed away earier this past year. Lindsey and his wife had stepped in to carry on Bruce’s tradition of trying to make Newfolk first-timers welcome, acting as the “Ellis Island of Kerrville”.
In any case, we spent most of the night jamming under Camp Kantigree’s tarp, trading songs in a rough circle centred around a plastic wading pool filled with plastic frogs. We eventually wandered around to find the main stage, explored the vendors there and then made our way back to Casa ilyAIMY and bedded down for the night.
The hippies kept us up for hours. I remember someone screaming “KILL THE EARTH KILL THE EARTH!!!! LOVE YER FRIENDS!!!!” over and over again. There was a fiddler that never stopped and then the didgeridoo player laid in. The only thing that shut up the over-exuberant world was the storm that hit us at 4 or 5am. I was horrified at the prospect of not getting ANY sleep before competing the next day, and the rain, and the noise, and then water IN the tent, and the flash of lightning, and the ferocity of thunder. eventually the storm died away, and the hippies never came back out. I think many of their number were drowned.
Saturday morning greeted us with sunshine like a fist. Oh. and my brother. He and Del had decided to make the 4 hour drive and pop in to surprise us. Our banner did us well by allowing him to find us, though I’m still shocked that he did. I had an alarm set to go off at 10am in any case, but I think we got up closer to 9 simply to avoid being cooked in our tent. We joined Lindsey for a bagel breakfast (another Rouse tradition) and met a good number of our fellow Newfolk Finalists. We played Deep in the AM and weren’t at all sure what people made of us.
There was barely a trace of the night’s rain except for INSIDE people’s tents. Over breakfast I stared out over a vista of dome tents that danced in a manner suspiciously similar to that of mating tortoises. watching a hump rise in the distance, wiggle in the air, and then come down again. then another rise someplace else as ITS owner tries to pour water out of its interior.
All in all, I was pretty relaxed as the competition actually got under weigh – right up till “combatant” (MC Steve Gillette’s word, not mine) number 4. We were number 6, and suddenly I got really nervous. Probably one of our biggest audiences ever, and I was really worried that we weren’t going to be folk enough for the crowd that I’d been watching. It wasn’t about winning or losing anymore (the caliber of performer was unanimously spectacular – I’d lose to any of these guys GLADLY! That caliber was obvious from the outset with Mike Morris opening up the day with a jaw-dropping performance – he was one of my favourites, and I was really disappointed that he didn’t pull a “winner” slot) it was about. being liked, I suppose. I was so nervous I was turned over to a massage therapist that they kept behind the stage just for that purpose. Then, after nearly walking out on stage before I was supposed to (Heather grabbed me at the last moment) we went out on stage at the Threadgill Theatre at the Kerrville Folk Festival.
The shock of playing to such a beautifully attentive audience is all the more alarming because I remember that I USED to play to audiences like that. When I first performed LooseN at the Jahva House, everyone got the jokes in it, people Loved the lines about “ripping off”. Here was another audience who was listening closely enough, and identifying with the song enough to applaud the notion that I wouldn’t kiss and tell, but that I’d stand and sing. It’s going to be hard going back to bars n shit after Saturday’s audience.
I hate to say it, but it’s all over. Kerrville: we came, we saw, we failed to conquer, but we had a good time, and now we’re reversing our trek along I-10, speeding into the dramatically deepening depths of the dark that I hope isn’t a storm. We’ve had enough of that over the past couple of days.
Gosh – has it really only been three days? That seems unbelievable. I’m going to break it up for continuity’s sake, but the days and nights all ran into one another, and I’m looking forward to sleeping a whole night through.
There is something about music festival culture that changes the way time works. The days are extended and run into each other. Late-a.m. bedtimes, delayed by jams and the noise of other people’s jams, don’t keep you from getting up at 9 a.m. because of the heat and light in the tent and nearby breakfast noises. Because you’re camping and there’s not so much in the way of electricity, cell phone batteries are conserved and time rationed, computer and Internet access limited. The world narrows to the campground and a couple stages. You feel every change in the dirt and the weather. Three-and-a-half days or so and three nights – That was the duration of our stay at the Kerrville Folk Festival, but it might as well have been a month on a secluded tropical island full of acoustic guitars that people were unwilling to fashion into the ark they surely could have built together, even when the rains threatened to drown us all.
I’ve said it before – I love campground culture. A group of people get out of their typical houses and environments and willingly form small, temporary homes for recreation. Teachers and lawyers become part children, part architects, designing additions to these structures with awnings, tarps, branches and string. The more crowded the campground, the more individualized the homes become so people can distinguish themselves with Christmas lights, signs and even lawn ornaments.
Kerrville , because of its size, annual schedule and its music theme, is on a whole other level. People form communities and enclaves with names like Camp Stupid, Camp Kantigree (Can’t-agree, since they spent so long trying to come up with a name), Camp Coho, Camp Todo Grande, Camp Calm. They maintain advanced rituals like “The Watermelon Sacrifice,” where a song about selling the fruit is sung to an accordion while marching behind a man draped in a picnic-table-cloth cape and wielding a machete, who places the watermelon on the ground, induces Braveheart-esque whoops and hollers from the raise of his blade, and then hacks the fruit to pieces before people converge on the parts like rabid scavengers. They have t-shirts and buttons made, and decorate their sites with mascots. One night, very late, we heard what sounded like stumbling into someone’s tent, and then “mooing.” Turns out the next morning, it was revealed Camp Stupid had raided Camp Kantigree , taken its frog mascot, and replaced it with a garden gnome.
They help form a map of the grounds even when one is not officially provided. I know our tent is about 100 yards beyond the Christmas-light palm tree, next to the camp with the frogs and plastic fish in a blue kiddie pool. If you get to the hippie kids with the huge campfire, you’ve gone too far.
Rob’s already talked about the competition stuff, so I figured I would talk about what happened once all that was over . which was . a little unexpected.
After we found out we didn’t win, we hung out around the main hospitality/merch table to talk to people and see a bit of the Ellis Paul/Vance Gilbert set. I called my parents and gave them the low down. We headed back to the tent to grab the guitars and figure out what song circles we were going to try to hit that night. Because the campsite is so big, it’s not like NewSong, where there might only be three or four different song circles going. There could easily be dozens, and they all have a different character. Walking around we spotted the hippie kids gathered around a campfire, smoking up while one guy played Anti-Bush songs. There was huge group in near-complete darkness, gathered inexplicably in front of a row of outhouses as seems to be a custom at Kerrville , singing covers in thick, chorus harmony. A group of mostly younger people gathered beneath a lone street lamp sang an upbeat song with a chorus like, “Heaven is my home and I’m going there,” and then “Whiskey in the Jar” while jumping up and down to the rhythms of New Folk “combatant” Mike Morris and his fiddle-playing partner, Heather. We walked down one of the incredibly muddy avenues and passed another small song circle before finding the one where most of the New Folk competitors and a few of the winners wound up. We stopped to listen to songs from Justin Roth, Stephanie Corby, Kat hrin Shorr, Tim Burlingame, Beth Wood and Erik Balkey, before giving up on the circle opening up for us.
If we’re going to be really honest here, Rob and I struggled a bit to fit in at Kerrville , despite the amazing kindnesses and friendliness of a good number of people. For one, both of us came to the bizarre realization was that we fell smack in the middle of the wide Kerrville age spectrum both numerically and ideologically. Too young to have the experiences and some of the musical tastes of the older set, too old to be all about the screaming, carefree nature of the early morning partying and dancing in the streets of the younger set. Though the age spread at Kerrville was wide and pretty all-encompassing, the circles and the campsites were fairly segregated by it. As one of the “adults” at Kantigree commented, “We’re old enough not to have our party next to an outhouse.”
So one of the reasons I wanted to be at the New Folk circle was to be around people closer to our age, as most of them were. These writers’ undeniable talent, and also the unique quality of the music were still in the folk tradition but different enough to inspire, and that was also something I wanted to be around. But we didn’t really fit in with them, either. A lot of them knew each other, or knew OF each other the way I knew OF a lot of them, but they did not know me or rob. There was a real feeling of not being part of the club. We weren’t excluded. They just didn’t know us . didn’t know what to make of us maybe.
Anyway, we wandered over to another circle where they welcomed us instantly. The style was on the country and bluegrass side of folk, and the beards and the years were a little longer. I was pleased to see one young kid was playing the same style and breaking the age segregation. We did a couple songs and they mostly liked the energy. It was one of a number of times this trip we’ve heard the specific compliment, “brought the fire on that one.”
It was getting late, and for the first time you could see your breath in the night air. So rob and I trekked back through the mud to see if any space had opened up at the New Folk circle. Just about everyone there had turned in or gone elsewhere, so at what must have been about 3 a.m., I said we should head back over to the very large group that had been gathered in darkness. I thought it would be fun to do “Your Eyes” since we would have such a large and willing chorus that had already been singing covers the last time we passed.
When we walked up, the circle was packed very tight, and you couldn’t distinguish anyone from the clump of shadow. The last song died down, and I asked if it was an open circle. No one really said anything and no one started up a song, so I started playing. Some people sang along, but about half the circle started to wander off. I was ready to head back to the tent, when someone behind me asked for an original. Tired of trying to fit the mold, I told rob to start “Sever,” and when the growing group asked for another, “Hands.” By then, we were ready to be done and started walking away. A couple stopped us and said very enthusiastically: “That was so cool how you just DID that!”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, thinking it was a compliment about the fact that I’d tossed the Eminem rap into “Hands” at a folk festival.
I wouldn’t have done that if it had been light enough to have seen that for myself. I started to feel a little guilty because apparently what I had done was broken up a circle where these folk heavyweights were playing.
Rob said something about it being a shame we hadn’t known because it would have been cool to play “Autobiography of A Pistol” for Ellis Paul, and the woman said he was still standing right there. So I figured might as well not stop halfway. “Hey, Ellis! Mr. Paul?”
I asked if we could play a song for him, and he agreed. When we got far enough into it to be recognized (rob’s rendition, if you don’t know, is VASTLY different), Ellis, Stephanie Corby and the other woman he had been talking to were a mix of amazement, laughter and whoops of approval. Ellis Paul put his arm around me and patted me on the back. When rob said he’d never figured out how to end it, Ellis said he was doing just fine: “Look at all the frets!” It made me feel a little better that the woman he was with jumped in and started going on to him on about our New Folk appearance she’d seen the previous day.
We thanked him a lot for his patience, and snapped a picture with him for proof of our chutzpah. We would have happily walked off, but he asked for an original. So we played “Spiral,” and he hummed a little bit with it in my ear. One good turn deserved another and he obliged my request for an original, apologizing for his mildly sloppy playing of rob’s borrowed blue Takamine thanks to a few drinks. I didn’t recognize the song, but even at that late hour and under the influence of alcohol, the man’s got presence. I find even when the song doesn’t bowl me over, the presence does.
An original from him on the borrowed guitar turned into the same from New Folk Finalist Justin Roth, another from Stephanie Corby and a couple from controversial main stage performer Eric Schwartz, including “Keep Your Jesus Off My Penis.” The delightful vulgarity doesn’t stop the song from being extremely eloquent. I’ve been told he does lovely ballads, though his flailing strangeness would never give it away. I mean, he went after rob’s ass with his teeth .
It was a good moment, and I felt it made up for my unknowing intrusion. At nearly 5 a.m. , we finally headed for Camp ilyAIMY and sleep.
And that was our last few waking hours at the festival, which should give you some idea of how much can happen in three days at Kerrville.
The night before last we left Kerrville – we would’ve only been able to stick around until noon the next day anyway, and I was tired of always being too hot or too wet and sleeping in puddles and panicking about the state of the outhouses. (though the last day a guy had been hanging around them all afternoon playing saxaphone, providing for a pretty nice diversion). We got into Houston that night and have been staying with my brother for the past few nights.
It’s wonderful how much more familial we are now than when we were kids. We never got along then – and now… well, he’s done amazingly. A wonderful fiance (Del is a very, very good match), a wonderful dog (Pica is a very, very good dog), a wonderful apartment. His photographs grace the walls, I’d forgotten how good his eye for composition was, and I keep forgetting to ask if any of the shots are recent.
Last night we all went out to Cosmo’s Cafe to play our first Texan open mic, and it sort of conformed to that Blues Brother’s idea (they had both kinds of music – country AND western) plus/minus a couple of players. It was on okay night, a couple of other people that I really enjoyed – we came back and watched Hero on DVD before turning in. I’ve been sleeping GOOD here, my subconscious apparently unaware that I’m in the midst of an ultra-red state and allowing me the best rest I’ve had since Atlanta.
Still in Houston. I like it here. Well, I like it indoors here. We’ve been to a couple of open mics, met some interesting people, but mostly I’ve just sort of been enjoying visiting with my brother and Del.
Last Wednesday we headed out to the Vintage Bar, which was officially the most unpopulated open mic I’ve ever been to. During our set we performed to the host, my brother, his fiance, the bartender, and the one man act that had just gotten off the stage.
The saving grace of the place came when a two man act wandered in on our second to last song – Simple and Hammer went up after us and did something we hadn’t seen in a long while – i.e. – something DIFFERENT. Pete Simple has a pretty nice voice and one of those outline-only travel guitars, and his partner, Hammer (what WAS his first name?) was a beat-boxing bass player, which, as I said, was at least something DIFFERENT. Good bass player, too. We haven’t seen any beat-boxing since leaving Maryland, and it was a refreshing blast after so many straight-forward acoustic performances at Kerrville.
Well, we hit it off pretty well, and they offered us a couple of gigs for this upcoming week.
Thursday night we ALMOST went to an open mic, but then we decided to be slackers.
Friday night Del hooked us up to play outside a very cool bar on the campus of Rice University, where she works. We set up our amplifier under a big tree and played for a couple of hours to passer-bys and friends of George and Del. We sold a couple of CDs, but were busking more than anything else, and we’re still a little shy for that, embarassingly enough. I’m not quite sure where we expect to get in Life if we’re too shy to stick our tip cup in people’s way… but…
I don’t know, I came home from that a little bit depressed, feeling the need to practice a bit more (which I haven’t done) and feeling the need to remember a couple of new songs (which I haven’t done) and REALLY feeling the need to write some new material (which I STILL haven’t done). I feel like my entire Life is taken up by maps and email and booking and… well, writing in this Journal (though I LOVE writing in the Journal) and upDating the website and all that stuff, and I’m perhaps using that as a way to escape from my REAL chosen profession.
Worry… worry… worry.
Heh, and Saturday night we were GOING to go to TWO open mics, but decided not to. George and Del found a sandcastle festival to go to instead, and that sounded like a lot more fun than staying home, so we wandered out to Galveston and stood amazed at the base of the sandcreations (not often actual castles) that towered over us.
It was a long day on the beach, and I have some burns to show for it. The sun in Texas is unrelenting, and the South constantly reminds me that if there’s one thing I’ve never dealt well with, it’s heat and humidity. Nothing else screws me up so bad, makes me play sloppier, makes me sing poorer, saps my energy and my personality, not to mention my will to Live.
The sun in Texas in unforgiving, and I’ve got stripes to prove it. If I had a blue shirt, I could be quite the patriot.