I have just returned from Moscow where I was working on a Russian production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens, for director Adrian Giurgea. The job came about because Vera Martynov had suggested me after we met at The Watermill Center earlier this year during our concurrent residencies.
Half my time was spent in service to Adrian and the play while the other half was spent wandering Moscow, amazed and confused. It’s a dense enormous city with a randomness to it’s architecture that lets it seem to exist outside of time. People move around quickly in great numbers and seem cold or short with one another in public, but are privately generous and kind in a way that can take you by surprise.
My job was to create music for a character’s lyrics that would give the actor’s a clear enough voice to cling to and supply the songs with a sense of unity. We met each day in a rehearsal space at the Pushkin Theater, Adrian, Polina the translator, the two actors Igor, Anton, and myself. Sometimes I worked at the piano, other times we would just sit around the table and talk about things that interested us in and outside of the play and it’s themes.
Adrian often dismissed my pleas for clarity, forcing me to rely on instinct and intuition. We developed a method of arriving at the songs which was both random and precise wherein I would sat with the english words and wrote a rough chord structure, that I later refined into melody when I heard the actors speak the Russian text, matching them syllable at a time. It sounds tedious but it actually moved very quickly.
The whole thing was Adrian’s strange little experiment. To see what I would do and to see if some of my voice might reveal itself by pushing me out of my comfort zone.
In September The Aliens will premiere at The Pushkin Theater and Igor and Anton will perform their own versions of the works we created together. I hope to return to Moscow to see it then and to see all my friends.
I have many more pictures of things I saw and places I went that I plan to post at a later date.
It was amazing opening for Rasputina for all these shows. I’ve been a fan of Melora’s songs for years and had seen her live many times but there’s something really unique about getting to hear a band night after night in different spaces and in different order. She’s a great storyteller and her songs are infused with so much history and detail. It’s been like getting to watch a movie you love over and over, learning something new each time.
Our show in Detroit was at the Magic Stick. We were late and I had to pull a set together from a wad of papers in my backpack, but I’ve been able to turn those kind of shows around. There was a certain kind of satisfaction in getting half the audience to sit on the floor like kindergarteners.
I was nervous for the Chicago show because I felt compelled to present my hometown audience with fresh material, namely “Blue Car” and “White Oaks Mall” (from Black & Whites). This involved me playing along with the original tracks from a recording and of course, during soundcheck, I realized I’d placed the wrong tracks on the device. I got in Jason’s car, sped home, talked to my obstinate computer, kicked a few things around, got back in the car, sped to the Double Door, parked it in the street, and ran on stage.
My loyal friend and bandmate Chris Hefner joined me for a few songs on musical saw and a whole lot of you were there to greet me in the audience. All my concerns about playing older material fell away when I noticed people were singing along. It was weird to be passing through Chicago and sleeping at my house like it were a motel.
Our next show was in Cleveland at the Beachland Ballroom. Hours before the show I’d stopped at a gas station and lost my pants button into the urinal. I showed up late for soundcheck as concerned about this as I was that night’s set. My sister happened to be in Cleveland and this was actually the first time she’d heard me sing. I was also glad to meet April Fecca of Now This Sound Is Brave who has been very kind to me on her blog. Luckily my pants stayed on through the whole affair.
I must admit, I did not care for Morgantown, WV. The streets are full of bullies with thick necks and big shirts. The audience was warm and I even liked the club, but everywhere else in town I was stared at like a space alien. At the end of the night, after a minor dispute over our guarantee, we were paid with a stack of one dollar bills, but paid none the less. It may be a while before we return to Morgantown.
Baltimore fascinated me as we were driving in. It seemed to have all the run down beauty of St. Louis without any of it’s troubled emptiness. People seemed to like it there. The promoter stuck an unfortunate band at the top of the bill - two goth guys who stunk up the stage. By the time I got up there to clean up the pile of shit they’d left, people were annoyed. I already arrive at these shows at a disadvantage playing a keyboard. I suppose it’s fair for people to sort of scratch their heads and expect showtunes or worse. I opened with Armageddonsong and tried to explain that if they’d give me a chance we would go someplace interesting together. Baltimore gave me that chance and we arrived. All of us but one jackass who I had the pleasure of shaming in front of his friends.
The last show of the tour was in Brooklyn at The Knitting Factory, a superb room and a great audience and a great last note with Rasputina and their crew. The following evening, we had tickets to see one of my favorite pieces of music, Gavin Bryars’ “The Sinking Of The Titanic” performed at Le Poisson Rouge for the Titanic’s centenary. I was thrilled to see Clarice Jensen, who performed in our preview of Black & Whites last January, playing cello. The rendition was outstanding. A great way to celebrate the end of the tour.
We had two stops on the way back. First, Delaware Water Gap, PA to see good friend and label-head Lou Rogai and play the piano at the legendary Deerhead Inn. Then, an overnight stay in Hamilton, NY where I spent time speaking with music and theater students at Colgate Universtiy after giving a concert. We were then treated to a great meal and conversation with head of Colgate’s theater department Adrian Giurgea and his wife, Simona.
Now I’m back at home, practicing, writing new material, and getting ready for some big announcements. Thanks to everyone who came out to the shows, hosted us, kept us company, fed us, and took the time to listen to my songs. And thanks to Jason Toth for doing most of the driving and keeping the show on the road.
It’s always daunting to strip things down and return to just me and the piano. Even though it’s how I do all my writing, it’s not how I’m used to being on stage anymore. And after a two month stay at the Watermill Center, I had basically been purged of the songs that make up my act. My initial concept for this tour was to rethink the bulk of this material and record it on tape so I could play along as way of looking back while moving forward. But I resisted and kept working on new material (To Make You Stay / Blue Car) instead and put this plan on hold until the last minute. As it turns out, I’m glad I did.
Jason and I loaded into the car, staying first in the terrifically creepy town of Herkimer. I’d brought my old keyboard and a 4-track along but I knew I wasn’t going to be fashioning a brand new set on this first night. Just getting the hang of things.
When the first show came in Burlington, I was nervous for the first time in years, shuffling my setlist, passing it to Jason and then shuffling it all again. But when I walked out and sat down I asked a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately: “If I could do whatever I wanted to do right now, what would it be?” And the answer was to find something new in these songs I hadn’t found yet. The Burlington audience made that easy for me. We learned the songs together and looked for things between the cracks I wasn’t going to find by re-recording anything.
By the time we made it to Buffalo I had shaped up my set and acquired a pizza-box music stand well suited to my usual ramshakle milk-crate ensemble. I worked with the 4-track in the hotel room each night and spun off in new directions or slightly evolved what was already there. Either way, it ended up a different show each night.
Crossing the border into Toronto I was annoyed to be reminded of an incident from 2000 by the border patrol. I’d stolen a pack of razorblades when I was 19 and spent the night barefoot in jail. But the fellow just said “Looks like you had some trouble back on 2000?” and I had to search my memory for all the stupid and terrible things I’d done to be able to land on that particular one, but that kind of nostalgia was put to good use.
Lee’s Palace was a very special show for me. It’s always a good sign when the sound engineer seems to enjoy his job. Everyone at the club was patient and kind. With just seconds left to showtime I realized I had to take a piss and filled an empty Starbucks cup in the green room before I ran on stage. I don’t know if this stupid act was what did it, but something connected and Toronto ended up being my best show yet. Girls in the front row were dancing. People were warm and friendly throughout. I spent a lot of time talking both from the stage and behind the merch counter. On my way out the door a nice young man presented me with a crystal as a way of showing his thanks. No one has ever given me a gift like that after a performance. I only wish I’d gotten his name so I could give him something in return.
Tomorrow is Detriot where I plan to try a few new things. Some new words, a little new music. Or I could throw it all out and do something else. I feel like that’s possible now.
But I’m most excited to return to Chicago and play what I hope will be a very different kind of show in the city where I have played the most. These solo shows all end up being a sort of conversation, and I can’t think of a more interesting conversation to have than with the dysfunctionally affectionate old friend I have in Chicago.