On the Road: A Kick in the Groin Is Always a Surprise
The only real cure for jet lag is adrenalin, and it’s only temporary. The six-hour time difference between New York City and France gives rise to a mental fog that a good meal, vitamins, jumping jacks, a nap, or a shower are all powerless to fix. Nonetheless, for any band that dreams of touring Europe, it’s as unavoidable as it is brutal.
In July, the Doc Marshalls embarked on our first European tour, with stops in France, Belgium, and Holland. No tour is without its peaks and valleys, but inevitably the best and worst gigs emerge as the most vivid memories, eclipsing all others. Rarely does the absolute best show – your moment of triumph – occur back to back with the most miserable, soul-sucking gig imaginable. Yet this is precisely what came to pass, with adrenalin keeping us wide awake for both. A kick to the groin is always a surprise.
The Country Rendez-Vous Festival takes place on the outskirts of the village of Craponne-Sur-Arzon, near Lyon, in France’s rural south-central heartland. This region of dark green hills, farms, and small medieval towns can best be described as la France profonde (“deep France”), an area whose culture and natural charm remain unsullied by throngs of tourists.
As with previous years, the 2010 lineup was heavily stocked with Texan artists, from headliners like Radney Foster, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Robert Earl Keen, to up-and-comers such as Lucky Tubb & the Modern Day Troubadours, the Quebe Sisters, and Mitch Webb & the Swindles. We were the only New Yorkers there, but I was raised in Dallas, so the musicians’ tent felt like a homecoming of sorts, where favorite Texas venues and bands were discussed.
“This is your reward for all those other gigs,” said Natalie Page Monson, the fiddler for Lucky Tubb. No argument there. Our fridges were stocked with mineral water (both sparkling and still) and beer, while a table boasted fresh local raspberries, nectarines, and pastries. In a neighboring dinner tent, iron pots brimmed with multiple courses of outstanding French fare.
This was a world away from the minor leagues of some lowlier American venues, where a musician’s headache often begins with well-brand bourbon (purchased with drink tickets), and climaxes at the hands of a sound man who shrugs when the monitors feed back. There was no danger of that here. The sound engineers were absolute pros; the P.A. system top notch.
Performing for a crowd of 10,000 – our largest ever – is the sort of thrill that shocks the system. The entire hour seems unreal, but your heart is pumping just fast enough to add a little danger to each song. Amid the struggle to keep your stomach’s butterflies flying in formation, there is barely time to contemplate the miracle of the moment – one day you’re writing a tune in your kitchen, and years later you’re singing that very song in a foreign country, on an enormous stage flanked by two jumbo-trons.
Signing autographs at a booth after our set, it was clear that our entire set, especially those songs sung in Cajun French, had resonated deeply with the crowd. They swung their arms around our necks for photographs, waved newly-purchase CDs, and plopped their cowboy hats on the table for us to sign. These people were a far cry from the inaccurate and tiresome caricature of the smug Frenchman that is so ubiquitous in American media. On the contrary, they were dyed-in-the-wool country fans whose love of Texan honky-tonk and American culture could not have been more genuine.
An hour later, still at the booth, fatigue started catching up with us. Our autographed messages were getting weirder. I signed a little girl’s poster, “Someday you will move to Brooklyn,” hoping it would somehow prove providential.
At dinner, we sat grinning over steaming plates of impossibly rich home cooking. It had been a wonderful day. Even my parents had made the trip from Dallas to see the performance. The Doc Marshalls clinked our wine glasses before asking for seconds of dessert. “Here’s to a great tour, guys.”
Two days later, at a train station in Antwerp, I received a text message from our Belgian booking agent: “Meet me in front. I have a black van.” He wasn’t kidding. A nearly windowless black vehicle swung around the corner, halting at the curb where we stood huddled near our luggage. Gentlemen, your hearse awaits.
Our first Dutch show at least seemed promising. The venue, named “The Honky Tonk,” was nestled alongside a canal in a fortified city founded in the 14th century. We emerged from the van to find a charming stretch of outdoor cafes and venues near the water. Not bad! It was time to load in, soundcheck, and try some local beer.
Inside, the fairy tale rotted instantly. We were in a shabby tavern. It was dark, cluttered, and hopeless. The doorway sported dinky posters of the band, made with clip art in Microsoft Word. The stage was no more than a miniscule platform in the corner, wedged in between a gambling machine and a cigarette dispenser. No sound system. It called to mind Johnny Bush’s definition of a “honky-tonk” as “a bad place to be.”
I decided to make the best of things, reminding myself that a few of our finest shows had initially shown little promise. We grabbed a junky P.A. system from the van and set it up in the corner. A patron with a balding pony tail frowned at the amp by the cigarette machine. We were already in his way.
At show time, we hit the ground running with a quick train shuffle beat, pedal steel, and fiddle. We would earn their attention with that Bakersfield sound we love so much. Unfortunately, after the first few songs it was clear that we were interfering with their Wednesday night. The sparse crowd chatted away, blowing smoke out of their jowls, looking bored. The end of each song was greeted with a strained smattering of applause, the kind usually reserved for “Best Sound Editing” at the Oscars.
During the second set, the bar filled with a rowdier crowd, but they were even less interested in live music. It’s a band’s job to win over an indifferent audience, but the power of positive thinking is no match for a gang of dudes in Ed Hardy shirts high-fiving each other whenever the video poker machine lights up. Still, we soldiered on, playing our more up-tempo repertoire. When that didn’t work, we switched to our newer, quieter, songs. This prompted a bartender to make eye contact with me from across the room. She made a “chicken dance” motion with her elbows, which I interpreted as the international signal for “pick up the pace!”
Near the end of the set we resorted to the cheapest trick in all of country music – playing “Folsom Prison Blues.” This had the desired effect – eliciting a few ironic yeehaw’s – but when it was over, I noticed two beer glasses had fallen off an amp and shattered. Behind the counter, both bartenders stood glaring at us. In all honesty, I haven’t been the object of such seething looks of quiet rage since Catholic school.
I spent the better part of our last break trying to smooth things over with the bartenders, to no avail (we were to learn time and time again that the breaking a glass, however inadvertent, is a very serious offense). The only warmth in the room came from three Louisiana music fans, whom I knew from an online Cajun accordion forum (yes, that’s a thing). Their purchase of CDs and t-shirts practically put a lump in my throat.
With one set left to go, the end was in sight, though not without a final indignity. We were informed that a two-song encore was “mandatory.” Frankly speaking, this is straining the definition of “encore,” which is a mutual, entirely organic understanding between a crowd that wants more music and a band that is eager to please. To a musician, making it obligatory is tantamount to a compulsory hug, as awkward as saying “I love you,” to a bank teller.
The final set and requisite encore were a blur. I recall two ladies bumping their butts to the groove while drawing figure 8’s with their cigarettes overhead. I remember the weary look on our pedal steel guitarist’s face, no doubt drained by what he later referred to as, “the sheer proximity of all the people ignoring us.” Near the very end, some massive, quavering oaf walked off with a CD, then turned around and offered us half the asking price, “Take it or leave it!”
“Leave it.” I said. He stood there a moment. Finally, he flung ten Euros at me in disgust. The gambling machine lit up again. We played our final song and thanked the crowd.
Then, like a fire drill, the place emptied at 11:00 pm. Bang! All customers were ushered out the door. By 11:06 pm the bartenders were sweeping the floor. They had a system going. Our tour manager collected the evening’s pay. No one ever said “goodbye.”
There were plenty of wonderful shows on the horizon but we didn’t know it yet. The adrenalin had worn off, and we desperately needed some dinner. The enormous spread we had feasted upon in France now seemed like a hallucination.
Life on tour is an endless mix of home runs and sucker punches. You’ll likely never need a reminder to check your ego at the door, but you’ll occasionally have to pat each other on the back after a bad night. Most importantly – and this you should file under “Words to Live By” – if you should ever break a beer glass in Belgium or Holland, even accidentally — run!
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