Josh Ritter - 11/5/07 - Western Realms
“To come down to my own experience, my companion and I, for sometimes I have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order, - not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust.”
- Henry David Thoreau, “On Walking”
It’s 9 p.m., and I’m sitting in a hotel near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It’s a Tuesday, but the streets are filled with a mix of dudes-on-business and senior citizens. The drive last night from Portland was really long, and, according to Don Spitler, bus driver, was shrouded in fog. The past several days were beautiful and busy and tonight is a night to put the old legs up on the old real bed and reminisce, repine and ruminate a bit on the last week or so.
Thoreau claimed that walkers have a special order all their own, and so, thinking of him and of the last 15 hours on the bus, I went out walking tonight. The air was clear and you could smell the ocean which never ceases to amaze me in a place as packed and full of other smells as this city. I pointed up the hill away from the water and up towards the action going on in the heart of North Beach. Richard Brautigan lived here and his picture next to the statue of Benjamin Franklin is on the cover of his book, A Confederate General from Big Sur. I passed all the usual stuff, the strip clubs that look like steakhouses, the takeaways lit with an almost aspirin light, City Lights and Vesuvio’s. The people out tonight are not out on dates but rather comfortable couples who seem to know each other well. The big slop house restaurants for tourists are mostly empty while the regulars up in this area seem to have their usual places staked out. Walking by the windows and the cordoned-off patios I notice that these couples don’t order bottles of wine but seem to order house wine by the glass. These are not people trying to impress one another.
Thinking about this, I stepped out into the street, where, wonder of wonders, there didn’t seem to be any street. My foot caught on some kind of pylon, and as I fell I noticed that I was falling on to the tram tracks. “How cheesy,” I thought to myself. “Dead on the tram tracks.” After all these songs about trains, to be wiped out by a train’s cousin, no matter how iconic a landmark of San Francisco it is, would be a back-handed irony. I waited for just a moment to get my breath and thankfully there was no tram close by. I got up and dusted myself off and started stating the obvious to passerby as people do when they do things like inexplicably fall. “I fell,” I say to a group of Japanese tourists as they cross in the cross walk all around me. I was fine except for a cut on my leg, but i was reminded how hungry and tired I was so I headed back to the hotel which is where I am now, sitting back drinking a whiskey and thinking about walking and if, while more noble, I am any bit less of a danger to myself as a walker than as a simple Ritter.
As we’ve headed west the drives have gotten longer. Not for us. The 20-minute pot-hole buffeting buffet on I-95. Out here it looks as if the sky is getting more than its fair 180 degrees, and the road is straight and grey. I’ve always wanted to walk across the country and maybe someday I will, but for the present I was happy to be squirreled away in the bus and getting some rest before the next day’s show in Boulder, Colorado.
I’ve been in Colorado a lot this year. Twice with Madeleine Peyroux, once with Hilary Hahn and once with my band. Now we’re coming back to Boulder and the crowd has grown pretty considerably so I’m glad we had a place to get some rest. And rest we did. So that as the noon bell tolled, knights of old we stormed into Boulder, Colorado, hearts afire and full of vim and whatnot to play the Fox Theater. The theater is a big old place hollowed out for lots of folks to fit in, and I think we got about 800 in there and it was nice and sweaty and happy. I smelled quite a few botanical effuviua out in the crowd and the folks in the crowd seemed fairly amped up and ready to go. Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter played first and it was such a pleasure to hear them live after listening to their records. What a beautiful show.
That night we drove to Salt Lake City for a day off. It was funny waking up in the city of the Saints in the parking lot of an adult store, but that’s exactly where we woke up. That morning I did a couple hours of interviews over the phone and got some exercise and everyone did laundry. Clean laundry on the road is true wealth. Clean socks are worth more than their weight in gold and I believe are the sole item that keep us recognizable from our closest simian relatives.
Freshly attired, Sam, Liam and I headed out from the hotel and walked towards Temple Square. The LDS church is the fastest growing church in America and the richest. It’s also completely home grown and its spiritual roots draw as much from the American landscape as from any text.
The Flag of Utah tells us quite a bit about the State. Two dates are on display. The first, 1847, is the year in which the Mormons led by Brigham Young founded the city of Salt Lake. The other date, 1896, is the year in which the state of Utah was officially entered into the Union. Between 1847 and 1896 the Utah territory (named Deseret by the Mormons) grew and prospered slowly until it was given statehood after repealing its stance on polygamy.
In the foreground beneath a bald eagle is a shield depicting a beehive. In the mid-1840’s Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers left Nauvoo, Illinois behind and headed west, looking for a place where they wouldn’t be bothered and could practice their creed. The land was harsh and prickly and there was a whole lotta mountain and desert going on, so to survive in this landscape, teamwork was necessary, and that was one thing the Mormons had in spades. It is little wonder that the state flag of Utah depicts a beehive and that “Deseret,” a term Joseph Smith claimed meant “honeybee” was used to refer to the territory before it became Utah at statehood.
We left for Boise and the home state at 2 a.m., and at 6 a.m., a bolt broke that kept tension on the alternator belt of the bus. Don Spitler got out of the bus and, working towards a Nobel prize in several categories in the snow of a mountain pass, used a vice and a sprocket wrench to substitute for the missing bolt. He then drove 80 miles into Burley, Idaho at 30 miles an hour and found a (I kid you not) bolt store. “You’ll go nuts over our bolts”, said the sign, and it’s true. Don got us to Boise on time for me to play my first show of two that day, at the great Record Exchange, and for that I want to thank him.
The Record Exchange was the first place I ever played in Boise and that was last year. It was an in-store and it was recorded and later put out as a little live EP that I am quite fond of. This time around the place was packed to the gills, and I played about 40 minutes and then signed for a couple of hours before heading to the Egyptian Theater where the band was sound checking. You haven’t seen a place like the Egyptian Theater. When the lights are out and it’s pitch black, you catch vague traces of light off of the gilded mummies and sarcophagi and hieroglyphs that frame what was once a vaudeville theater and now plays movies and hosts music acts.
The crowd at the show that night was the most insane I have ever played to. People didn’t even bother to sit down but were up out of their seats from the second song and never sat down. I had to concentrate to hear myself over all the other voices in the crowd. It was a beautiful, beautiful night and one I will never forget. It was such a privilege to have my band play such a special show for their first time in Boise and I want to thank everyone who made it possible.
The band were not the only newcomers to Boise. Jim Carrol, writing for the Irish Times, also met us up at the show and got on the bus with us for the ride to Seattle.
October 21st is my birthday and I had it this year in Seattle. It was great to be able to hang out with my family here. That night at the show my mom got up on stage and passed out 60 cupcakes (as many as she could carry in two boxes) to the crowd. I had one before playing. Kathleen and I watched the white boxes crowd surf around the room as people shared the cupcakes. Rock and Roll! I’m sure there are pictures out there and if anyone has one of that I’d love to see it. It’s not often you get to share the stage with your mom at a rock show.
It had been a crazy couple of days and I couldn’t wait to get into my bunk and go to sleep. The bus had gotten a flat tire in the parking lot and while someone outside winched and pullied the bus into working order, I sacked out.
I woke up in Portland in time to get showered and head down to KINK radio with my radio promoter, Dave Einstein, where I played for a studio audience, did a short interview with some folks at the station, and thanked them for playing the record. Coming back to the bus, I saw my manager Darius, which was unexpected. I thought I’d be seeing him in San Francisco. I got out of the bus to say hello and he handed me a car key. There, across the street was the car of my dreams. A little blue 1973 Mercedes. I was, and still am, speechless about it. He and the band and a few friends all pitched in to give me it, and I am pretty much undone by their generosity. Wowsers. So come December, all you Northwesterners keep a close eye out for a hot little blue number tooling it’s way from Oregon to Idaho!
Last night’s show at the Aladdin in Portland was fueled with the same sense of cowed disbelief that ushered in the arrival of the car, which I am nominally calling the Blue Glove because it fits me so well. The space in front of the stage, normally about 25 feet of no man’s/no band’s land was squeezed full of people who had once again eschewed the seats for the floor and we played as hard as we could for everyone who had come down to our show on a Monday night. At one point, the people in front turned around and began singing to people behind them in the balcony. It was like the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, but with beer.
All right. I held onto this blog for a bit because I figured we still had a bit more West Coast to go. The show at Bimbo’s 365 Club went well. Lots of happy people and a horn section that rocked out. Before soundcheck, Eric Bachmann and I got a tour of the kitchen and private dining area of the club where Invasion of the Body Snatchers had been filmed and where folks like Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra used to eat private dinners before performing. We had a great time at the show and then finished the night at Vesuvio’s before heading late night to Los Angeles.
The weirdest transition of the tour for me was waking up in a parking lot in L.A. To go from the salt-sea air to the billboard and asphalt of Southern California in a few hours is a jarring experience. Luckily, we had a hotel room to break our fall, and all of us got a shower and a couple hours off before heading over for soundcheck at the El Rey Theater.
The El Rey Theater, like many of the theaters we’ve been playing on this tour, is a remnant of the golden age of cinema. With chandeliers, flocked wallpaper, and plush seats, these places are nearly unrecognizable from the shoebox multiplexes of today, and were designed around the idea that going to a show was an event. It’s a pleasure to play a place like this, and as it turned out, it became quite an event for one couple as the night went on.
I met Tim, the bar manager of the El Rey, outside the theater when I arrived. He told me that he’d met his girlfriend Montserrat at one of my shows a year and a half ago. Now, two shows later, he was going to propose to her during “Good Man.” He wasn’t asking to do it in front of people, he just wanted to let me know he was going to do it and he wanted to say thanks. He had a very nice bottle of bourbon for me as well. Pretty cool. Tim’s a really nice guy and I could tell that all the employees of the place were pulling for him so I asked if they could let me know if and when Montserrat said yes. Four songs into the set, I got the flashlight flash from the side of the stage. I’m so proud to have been a part of such a turning point in two people’s lives. Afterwards we hung out for about an hour, talking with the couple and with friends and drinking some very good bourbon.
The next day I got up, did laundry and then met the rest of the band to pile on the bus and head downtown to the Natural History Museum. We were going to tape a show called The Artist’s Den, which will be showing in January on the Ovation network. January is a long ways away, but in the short term, the experience was awesome and fun. We walked into the museum and were greeted by two enormous dinosaur skeletons locked in a death match. To the left was a large hall filled with skeletons of pygmy horses and giant sloths from the Cenozoic period, and next to that, another hall devoted to the large mammals of North America. There, at the end of the large wooden hall, a stage was being erected in front of a herd of buffalo.
The show was fantastic. We had a great horn section, good sound considering that the hall was all marble, wood and glass, and the folks shooting the show were so professional that the myriad cameras were invisible to us on stage. Five hundred people packed into the hall were up for a good time, and as impressed by the surroundings as we were. You don’t get the chance to hang out at night in a museum all the time, so after the show I headed to the Cenozoic period and met folks and signed albums until the wee hours at which point it was back on the bus and off to Tucson, Arizona.
These shows are more than just exciting; they’re an honor to be playing. I want to thank all of the people coming down and giving the band and I a chance. There are a lot of new folks out there and I appreciate your giving us a shot. To all the people working so hard to bring them, from word-spreaders to lighting people to monitor engineers and ticket takers, thank you. As you can tell, I’m pretty fired up by all that I’m experiencing out here on the road right now and I’m doing my best to turn right around and give it back to anyone who wants it. I’ll keep you up to date as we move on!