From sky-divine festival to retirement home, our most recent Tour kept us on our toes.
8:30am. The back door of our van, The Whale, is slung halfway open. I’m the last to the driveway. What am I, a rookie? Finding a home for your bag in the back of the Whale is no easy task, and it’s even harder if you’re the last one outside.
But I’m ready for the challenge. Michelangelo would stare at a huge block of marble until his eyes pulled out the sculpture already within. Like the great renaissance artist, I must see the space for my bag before it’s there. Remove and realign items that had already been comfortable. Shove, bend, force. Sometimes an elbow gets involved. But there’s always room. Somewhere. Somehow. Be like Mike.
Closing the door is a whole other thing. Better stretch before your attempt, ’cause it’s all torque and force. It’s a full-on arm wind-up and hip-rotation, like a goddamn tennis serve. It ain’t quiet either. It’s an aggressive maneuver that shakes the very core of the earth and can probably be heard halfway down South Congress Avenue.
Pack-difficulty notwithstanding, we all love the Whale dearly. So much so, in fact, that before we leave we always, without fail, convene at her jaw for a pre-tour prayer. Hands on the hood, eyes closed. Healthy transmission, trustworthy break pads, that sort of thing. Then we pile in.
I know our first stop is in Cincinnati, but beyond that I have little clue. Most tours, I am aware only of the direction we’re going in, and maybe the first destination. I know that sounds hard to believe, but it’s just the way it is. Over the years I’ve learned to trust that my brother Bone (also the band manager and booking agent) will book a tour jam-packed with adventure. And music is usually only half of it.
The debriefing begins before we reach I-35. (Heading north…I had that much right). As Bonesaw runs down the list of dates and locations I realize just how strange this tour will be. I hear “sky-diving festival in Cincinnati, retirement home in Willow Grove, Skatepark warehouse in Cheltenham, Elementary school in Falls Village Connecticut, sea-side barn in Rhode Island, community clubhouse in suburban Charlotte, Horse Farm in South Carolina, and wedding at a brewery in Atlanta.
Woah. Even by our standards this tour is a little schizo.
A few years ago we found ourselves wanting to diversify our venue palette, so to speak. We had just released a very mellow album called “Roaming Dragons” and knew that the normal rock clubs we’d been touring through for years wouldn’t be the best fit. The songs from Roaming Dragons were heavy on 4 part vocals, acoustic guitars, niche instruments like glockenspiels, melodicas, and slide whistles, and percussive textures like tambourines, shakers, bells, and brush sticks rather than full on drum set arrangements. We felt the songs would be best served and received in smaller, more intimate settings.
In addition, we thought it’d be fun to take the power back a little bit. We’d been on a “fan empowerment” kick and thought it’d be a gas (pun intended) to drive around the country without ever dealing with a promoter or “talent buyer”. Instead, the fans would book us directly; to play their living rooms, backyards, surprise parties, schools, weddings, etc. We’d do 20 shows per tour, play 20 songs at each show, for around 20 guests, and the hosts would pay the equivalent of $20 per guest. (They could assume the entire booking cost themselves or they could charge their guests upon entry). We called these tours “20-Tours”.
Soon the 20-Tours became our main way of touring. Once the word got out that you could book us and we’d play anywhere you wanted we had fans emailing us months in advance. When we booked somewhere between 10 and 20 shows we’d pile into the Whale and take our show directly into peoples’ homes. When we arrived we’d find that the host had arranged catering, designed and hung banners, sent clever show flyers to their friends, and sometimes even printed t-shirts, bracelets, or hats commemorating the day. People even started to bake cakes in the shape of our mascot, the Whale. We now have a “Whale Cake Hall of Fame” club without about 12 members, and a “Host Hall of Fame” for all the hosts who have booked us two times or more.
One of my favorite things about 20-Tours is that we get to see where our fans really come from. When we tour rock venues and play a show in Atlanta, for instance, we only experience the club, not Atlanta. And the fans that come to the show are from somewhere near Atlanta, not downtown Atlanta. But when we go to, say, “Will Scroggin’s house” and play for his friends and family, we see his world. Johnson Ferry Rd., not “Atlanta”. He tells us where there’s a park to play soccer, and where there’s a slammin’ breakfast diner he’ll take us to the next morning. It’s one of the advantages of these 20-Tours; we really get to zero in on America. And our fans.
20-Tours typically bring us to homes, but as I said earlier, this latest one brought us to a bewildering menagerie of venues. Depending on which show you went to, you either watched us from a parachute harness, a wheelchair, a half-pipe, a folding chair in a gymnasium, a picnic blanket, a couch, or a bale of hay. And, you were anywhere from 6 months old to 95 years old.
Show #1: Skydiving Festival, Cincinnati, OH
Played this one at a drop zone facility inside a large hangar. Daredevils bustling around, loading into prop-planes, reviewing post-jump Go-Pro footage on screens set up around the snack bar.
I know what you want you’re gonna ask. Did we jump? Negative. I made a promise to my mom. So did my brother Bone. Our mom is a worrier, you see, and while you might use the word “wimps” to describe a couple of dudes in their 30’s not jumping out of a plane because their mom begged them not to, I’d prefer to use the words “good sons”, thank you very much. Plus it’s just such a convenient excuse when the people at the drop-zone tell you “c’mon man you can jump for free, let’s do it!” There’s no fucking way I’m sky-diving, man. Like Seinfeld said, at that point the helmet is wearing you for protection.
The night ended with everybody heading out into the landing field to release hot-air lanterns into the night sky. A nice bit of poetic feng shui, I thought. Drop yourself from the sky during the day, and send your lantern up to it at night.
Show #2: Holy Redeemer Retirement Home, Philadelphia, PA (Hosted by John Kepner)
The downstairs lounge was packed for this Wednesday afternoon hour of rock. We’ve played retirement homes before and it’s always interesting because for the most part the crowd is completely unresponsive. I’m not making light of these folks’ situation, I’m just saying that many of them are out of it, suffering from exhausting illnesses, heavily medicated, or simply too old to show much physical or emotional reaction to the music. But you always have to keep in mind that it means something to them. That the music is moving them inside if not outside, and that this is where it matters most anyway.
That being said, there are always a few people who are completely with it, able to dance around a bit, and who can banter with you between songs. On this day there were about three such folks. One lady who danced something I like to call the “Walker Shuffle”, one who stood front and center snapping her fingers with great finesse and occasionally hitting on our handsome bass player (“gimme two more weeks and I’ll probably be single,” she said), and a gentleman with an ear-to-ear grin who kept asking the staff if “we could get some beer out here!”
I don’t think I have to tell you how fun this gig was.
Show #3: Skate the Cellar skate park, Philadelphia, PA (Hosted by Brett Williams)
From a retirement home to a skate park. I know there’s a segue here somewhere. Let’s see….at both shows there were a lot of people engaging in wheel-based modes of transportation? YESSSSSSSS. Nailed it.
But the similarities come to a slam-the-breaks halt right there. And the take-away story from this skate park show is a little jarring after reading the paragraph on the retirement home show. So I’ll start with this; when we woke up on Thursday, none of us in the band thought to ourselves, “time to head down to the skate park, play our show, and then a little later get a fucking KNIFE PULLED ON US BY THE CLOSING BAND, HOLY FUCK.”
It’s a shame that this show will be defined in the annals of Full Service touring history by this insanity, because our host, Brett “Cakeman” Williams, is such a sweet guy and both he and we were so excited to be playing the new facility he’s worked so hard to build for the skating community. Plus, we played a great show. Attentive crowd, good sound, good energy. The trifecta. But then in walked the crazy.
So we play our set, clear the stage, and we’re packing up the whale while the other band gets their stuff set up. They make some noise, switch off the lights in the warehouse, and we hear a motorcycle revving into the property and a siren noise coming from a bullhorn. The band launches into some horribly dissonant sludge while the lead singer hops off the motorcycle and climbs to the top of a flatbed trailer with his bullhorn. He is wearing all black and has slicked back black hair and a full black beard. His eyes are wide. He’s sort of Charles Manson-esque in this way. But not as squirmy. He’s like half Manson, half Ed Norton’s character from “American History X”.
Anyway, he’s on the trailer with his bullhorn while the band is behind him—in the caged part of the trailer—sludging through some drony noise in an ungodly, evil tuning. Maybe low “A” or some shit. Then the singer raises the bullhorn to his mouth and shouts “AUSTIN TEXAS FUCKING SUCKS AND THE BAND BEFORE US IS A BUNCH OF FUCKIN PUSSIES AND THEY CAN EAT SHIT AND COME SUCK MY FUCKING DICK!” Then he starts screaming some more.
I turn to Bone. He can’t believe it. Without saying anything to each other we both walk up to the singer and hold our arms up like “What the fuck, man?” and in one sneaky little movement (this guy was part Heath Ledger’s joker, too, actually) he pulls out a knife and makes the “slit-your-throat” motion. Then he brushes his cheeks with it. Gently. Fuckin’ psycho.
Obviously, Bonesaw and I retreat without hesitation. We should probably pack the rest of our stuff and just get the fuck out of here. Back at the Whale, Smell and Sunny have the same idea. So we shove everything in and hop into the van. Things back in the warehouse are getting crazier by the measure. The singer starts throwing glass windows, cinder blocks, and beer bottles. Glass is everywhere. Then he starts firing bottle rockets into the crowd. We say goodbye to Cakeman, advise him to shut it down and call the police, and get the fuck out of there.
I have nightmares that night.
Show #4: Pat & Ali’s house, Newport, RI (Hosted by Pat and Ali Downes)
An equally difficult transition to make between these two shows as well. The only knives we saw in Pat and Ali’s backyard were for cutting a cheesecake one of the neighbors made for the guests. I guess that works.
We know Pat and Ali from our years touring with Pat’s band “Badfish”. They live in a small, quiet neighborhood in Newport where everybody knows each other and the neighbors open their barn/apartment to touring bands that come through the area (thanks again, by the way!). Pat and Ali have a great dane the size of a horse and a 6 month old baby the size of a watermelon. This was just the place we needed to be after the Skate Park Knifing.
Huge turnout for this late summer backyard party. Pat and Ali did a superb job decorating their yard with remote controlled LED lights (Smell had a blast with that), Full Service banners, and circus animal pinatas. They hosted us last year as well (meaning the evening included a Host Hall of Fame ceremony) and I get the feeling this might turn into an annual event. And how ‘bout this you guys; each time we come back we’ll add another verse to the song we wrote for your wedding two years ago. And by the time we’re all 60 it’ll be like a Homer-sized ballad that’s 500 pages long.
Show #5: Falls Village Elementary School, Falls Village, CT (Hosted by Brook Martinez)
Brook Martinez is an old friend from my and Bone’s elementary school days. Now the dude teaches kids who are the same age as we were when the three of us met. I wonder if, in 25 years, one of his students will call up one of his other students and say “Hey man, your band should roll through the school I teach at and play an assembly. Remember? Like when Mr. Martinez had those hippies from Texas come play for us?”
I hope so.
Anyway, yeah. About 60 kids in those metal folding chairs at half-court of the gymnasium, us on the fold-out stage in front of them. We took questions—some of them legitimate (“What’s that thing with the tube coming out of it that the pirate guy is playing?”), and some of them silly (“Do you guys like cats?”), we told them what it’s like travelling the country (“Sometimes the van gets stinky and we fight, but mostly we just have a blast!”), and how sometimes you have to throw your drumstick in the air just for fun because it’s ok to let performance get in the way of execution. (The next song I threw my stick in the air and performance definitely got in the way of execution.)
Brook even taught some of his students the line from our song “Trumpets”, and one girl nailed a very brave solo, which was impressive because apparently she’s never improvised before.
Afterwards we went back to Brook’s place (a castle-looking house built by an eccentric Italian sculpture in the 30’s) and he and his wife Sarah cooked us a huge lasagna while his four-year-old son Leo taught us about Dinosaurs. (“Did you hear?? Tyrannasaurus Rex is not the biggest dinosaur! They found a bigger one called ‘Dreadnaughtus’ in a place called ‘Ar….Argen….Argentina!!”).
Thanks Brook! Please have us back!
Show #6: The Radke Family, Charlotte, NC (Hosted by Marino and Kim)
Marino and his wife Kim have hosted us before. Less than a year ago in fact, which I feel qualifies them for some type of special Host Hall of Fame PLUS status. They live in a suburban neighborhood outside Charlotte and this time–like last–they reserved the neighborhood’s clubhouse for their 20-Tour booking. The high vaulted ceilings make for some very enjoyable reverb, and the plush couches and armchairs provide comfortable seating. (It sounds like I took that from the brochure). Marino and Kim had us over to their house for dinner before the show (jalapeno sausages, pizza, local beer) which was great because we got to see their little French bulldog. He cracks my shit up.
They also presented each of us with one of the rubber bracelets they made up to commemorate the event and to give away to all the guests. Again, like Pat and Ali, I get the sense that the Radkes might turn this into an annual community event. No pressure though.
But how great would it be if we had annual, fan-hosted events like this all over the country?? We already have the Full Service Circus in Austin (a 3-day event featuring music, sports, food, etc) where everybody can come visit us, but how cool would it be if there were these little satellite festivals all over the U.S. where we come visit them. I think it might happen. Hell, it’s already happening.
Anyway, thanks Radkes! Hope you enjoyed this year’s theme song. I know it was a little slow and swampy-sounding, but I thought it came off nicely.
Show #7: Applegate Horse Farm, Pelzer, SC (hosted by Karla)
I immediately took to a horse named Jasper, who happened to be the birthday girl, Tabitha’s, horse. Jasper just had a sweet, mild manner about him. I think he liked my drums, which I set up just outside his stable. It was nuts, actually; as I was sound-checking, the horses really came alive, and not in a “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT NOISE LET’S GO BATSHIT CRAZY” type of way. They just stopped what they were chewing and started running through the fields, all grace and beauty. After a verse or two they pulled up closer to the fence in front of me and settled in for a good listen. Serious eye contact too. I like playing for horses.
Karla has wanted to host us at the farm for a awhile, and it worked out that today was her friend Tabitha’s 30th birthday, so we had much to celebrate. Tabitha’s husband Joel cooked up the burgers and brought out the beer coolers and we took turns riding Jasper before the show. Set up the merchandise on the hay bales inside the barn, careful not to disturb Karla’s barn cat, “Taco”. As Karla told us later, “You know, ‘Taco Cat’ backwards is still ‘Taco Cat’!” I am not too jaded for that not to blow my freaking mind. I thought that was awesome. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a palindrome.
OH! And for anyone who was at last year’s Full Service Circus, we finally got that photo of Bonesaw on top of a horse shredding a guitar solo. And for anyone who wasn’t at last year’s circus, that sentence sounded a little weird I bet.
Show #7: Melissa and Matt’s Wedding, Atlanta, GA
Another induction into the Host Hall of Fame! And they got married today, too! Unbelievable joy. Joy augmented by the assorted varieties of craft beer at the microbrewery where they held the wedding; Monday Night Brewing. (Slogan: “Weekends are overrated.”)
Melissa and Matt chose a cool spot. You walk into the brewery and there’s this huge wall with hundreds of ties hanging on the wall. It took me a minute to understand. Why ties? Ohhhh….to symbolize the worrrrrrk weeeeeek. The idea is you bring in a tie, hang one on the wall, then pull one off the wall that you like. Or something like that. I think you can also donate to some organization that provides people with ties. Not sure. Smell, Bonesaw, and I just jacked some from the wall because we forgot our own. But we pinned them back up after the show. Or at least I did.
We played “Lately” as Matt and Melissa walked down the aisle, no vocals. Then the officiant (a friend) quoted from Huey Lewis’ “Power of Love” (which, when delivered in a spoken-word manner, is quite beautiful and wedding-appropriate actually) and pretty soon the lovebirds were married. Then we played a few sets, people watched, smiled, ate, and that was that. The pulled chicken sliders were scrumptious and the french fries slammed. It was a great sunday afternoon, and we thank Melissa and Matt for including us in their big event.
So that was the tour. I don’t even have a concluding paragraph really. I mean, shit…What do you say at the end of that? I’m just glad I’m in this band, glad each day is whacky, and glad each audience is different.
Every day, such an oddball memory. — “Oddball Memories”, from Carousel