Once again, I set my Sat Nav to avoid going on the Interstate and I headed for Omaha. I think the navigational device is annoyed at having to work so hard. It’s probably used to saying, “drive straight for 300 miles”. At one point, it suggested I take a left turn which would have taken me in to the Missouri River; another time, if I had not questioned it, I would have crossed some rail tracks and gone in to a ditch.
The radio station I’m listening to issues a tornado warning for southeast Nebraska. I pull over and consult my large map of the US to see exactly where I am. I am in southeast Nebraska. The tornado does not materialise but rain like I have never experienced before does. I cannot see the bonnet of the car. I concede defeat and pull over until the rain has passed.
When I reach Omaha, I decide to check out tomorrow night’s gig venue, the Barley Street Tavern. It’s in a once-rough neighbourhood called Benson that is being regenerated. I meet Dan the sound man. He has just come back from gigging in Ireland and we find common ground. He is also in love with an Italian girl; me too, I say. Not the same girl, I add.
I am pleased with the venue. The stage is in a room off of the bar but where people in the bar can still see and listen to the act on stage. There are tables and chairs in the music room, a good-sized stage, a good PA system, and Dan sounds like he knows what he’s doing. I start to look forward to the gig.
I spend the next day checking out Omaha. My favourite part of the day was crossing a bridge over the Missouri River, which connects Nebraska and Iowa, and standing with one foot in each state.
Whilst browsing in a pawn shop (I nearly buy a 1969 Yamaha FG10 acoustic guitar but think better of it) the storeowner notices that my wedding ring has a kink in it. He offers to straighten it; he takes it over to the jewellery section, taps out the kink, and polishes it, too. How friendly is that?
First on the bill at the Barley Street Tavern that night is a very large gentleman wearing a straw boater hat. His songs are very long and wordy. There was one that mentioned all 43 US Presidents; it seemed to go on longer than a term in office. At the end of his set, he asks Dan, the soundman, if he can do one more song. Dan considers what he has just heard and says, “Have you got a short one?” No, says the portly troubadour, and slinks off stage.
I consider my performance to be the best of the tour, so far. For the first time I feel comfortable playing the Martin guitar (it has a smaller neck than I am used to). I also think that the set list is coming together – which songs to play, in what order, when to tell a story, when to shut up and play the song. I get a great response from the crowd, and sell a lot of albums – I may run out of them in a gig or two! Dan immediately plays the EP over the sound system; he particularly likes Restless Celtic Heart.
I stick around to hear the band on after me. The Blake Byrd Band are a young indie band from Dallas, Texas – great songs and a wickedly funky drummer. We chat afterwards and they promise to come to my show in Dallas in July.
I’m up early the next morning and drive back to Kansas City for a festival called Porchfest. This is a neighbourhood near the Missouri-Kansas border where a number of house front porches are given over to bands playing acoustic music. You can wander down a street and hear myriad different genres: classical, jazz, bluegrass, and several different types of country (blues, swing, americana). By the time you come back down the street (pulling your beer trolley behind you) the bands will have changed. The event is well supported by the locals and the hot streets are packed with music lovers. The heat eventually gets to me and I retire to a friend’s house where the guitars have come out and a jam is in session. It would be rude not to join in.
We head out to Knuckleheads to see The Mavericks. The band consists of two guitars, drums, double bass, keyboards, accordion, trumpet and sax. Everyone but the drummer sings backing vocals. The musicianship is outstanding. Their infectious Latin-tinged country is perfect party music and the place is swinging. One of the best gigs I’ve seen in a long time.
It’s too early to go home, so we go to the American Federation, a club that has been hosting jazz on Saturday nights since prohibition. I am not particularly enamoured by the modern jazz being played on the stage but I’m happy to be in a room where the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Parker have performed.
My friend Matt seems to know every down and dirty bar in the city, and the names of the bartenders, too. We cruise a few of them including the Shady Lady, which lived up to its name.
We call it a day at 4am with breakfast in a Mexican restaurant.
The next day there was a blues jam down at Knuckleheads. The musicianship was so good that I couldn’t resist getting involved. Once again, the bemused crowd’s interest was piqued when they heard my English accent. Whilst they are rooting for me, I always feel there’s an element of, ‘okay, show us what you got’. The band knew both my blues staples of Unchain my Heart and Before You Accuse Me, and the crowd got behind me. I was thrilled to have played on the stage where only the night before I’d seen The Mavericks.
I head north for the gig in Des Moines, Iowa. I knew two things about Des Moines. One, it is the insurance capital of the US. Two, it’s home to rock band Slipknot. I like to think that the two are related. I think that’s why the band wear masks – by night they are rock stars but by day they are middle management loss adjusters for one of the big firms and want to keep their identities secret from their bosses, and keep their job options open just in case this rock star thing doesn’t work out. While I’m not a fan of their music, I admire their prudence.
My gig in Des Moines was a house concert – a gig in someone’s house. They are very popular in the States (perhaps because they have bigger houses) and work like this: the host books an artist they like and invites friends to come and see the artist perform, for which they pay an entrance fee. They get to see the artist up close and personal, and interact with them before and after the show. The host gets the kudos of having introduced friends to a new artist; the artist gets to perform to a new audience, is paid the entrance money, sells merchandise, and is also fed and watered and put up for the night. It’s a win-win situation that, in the fractured business model that is the music business, can be the difference between a tour losing money, breaking even or actually making money.
My host was Scott Stillwell, a songwriter I’d met in Nashville last year; we wrote a couple of songs together. When he heard I was touring the US, he insisted that he put on a gig for me in Des Moines.
There was no PA amplification; just me and my guitar sitting in the living room of Scott’s apartment, in front of about 20 people. It was very intimate. It was very laid-back. The audience listened intently. During certain songs you could feel the intensity heighten. As an artist you respond to that and your performance of the song builds and the audience responds to that; it’s very organic.
I also enjoyed that I was able to take my time telling the stories that set up certain songs.
I played two 45-minute sets with an intermission of 20 minutes. I only usually play one set, so I had spent a long time mulling over the set lists. I like to think that I got it right, in terms of light and shade, different keys, major and minor, happy and sad, fingerpicking and strumming, fast and slow.
I loved every minute of it. Thankfully, Scott’s friends did, too. I insisted that Scott play a couple of his new songs he’d played to me earlier. He’s writing the best songs of his career, and his friends hadn’t heard them, so it was nice to shine the spotlight back on him.
The people were very generous; not only did they pay a minimum of $15 dollars admission, but everyone present bought either an album or an EP as well. It was my best payday of the tour. And I didn’t even have to drive to a motel.
I spent a couple of days in Des Moines. Scott invited me to a meal his son was hosting because it was Father’s Day. I am far away from my own children and was missing them terribly, so it was nice to spend some time in the warmth of a family environment; we toasted fathers everywhere.
The next day, with thoughts of the intrepid pioneers of long ago, I set out for the west.