Friday, May 22, 2015

High Desert Downtime, HooDoos, Ghosts, Badlands

I was kind of hoping for just a little more sleep. I had the Lincoln parked behind the gig in what turned out to be the Salvation Army parking lot. Well before dawn, a crew turned up to install new signage. The view from my windshield was startling, to say the least. Not to mention the roar of the crane, crew trucks banging, and operators calling out in godless language for me to move my fucking car. Ah, the word of God. Hope for the new day. Just down the road I find an iconic Tim's sign, and slink into the bathroom of this familiar coffee joint for a shave. Then, a massive coffee and a breakfast biscuit while I watch the sun begin it's work, burning off the haze. I'm down today, so I drive around Chilliwack, BC, looking for pawn shops, thrift stores, looking for signs of life, looking for the heart and soul of the place. I had a good crowd at my show last night, so I know there are real folks living here- good ones, too- but in the early morning this town is tight and quiet. I park and walk around a bit to kill time. No rush hour here, at least not downtown. As the sky is bluing, I've gassed up, got a car wash, bought some groceries, and visited two thrift stores. I've checked the tires, polished the windows, changed my clothes. Behind the bowling alley, a young hooker knocks on my window. She's carrying a suitcase. She wants a cigarette. I don't smoke. She looks like death. She wanders off, toward the bank machine across the parking lot. Other cars. Other cigarettes. At least I had a place to sleep last night. God was watching over me, or at least His signage was.

Leaving the lush, Fraser valley behind, I'm taking the smaller road up into the mountains. There's not much traffic on this road today as I pass through First Nations lands. Rough lives documented by the rusting steel totems of broken cars and trucks, torn siding, and salvage built homes. A roadside plaque tells me that a village was once here, out in the mud and the bogs. There's no sign of it now as I point the car towards Hope, and beyond.

Once you hit the tunnels, you've started to climb. These passes are all about tunnels and trains squeezing their way up and down the steep valleys. It doesn't take long to leave the soft lines of the Lower Mainland behind. There are fewer people up here. Fewer towns. It's all about coming and going. Goods moving east and west on giant trains that run through these mountains like massive snakes: miles long: competing lines roaring through this wild territory in all weather, at all times of the day or night. Again, the TransCanada Highway. A thin band of blacktop. How wide? Twenty feet? Wide enough for two trucks. Wide enough for this Lincoln on a sunny day. I climb through places with names like Boston Barr, and Hell's Gap. Soon this road will be crowded with RVs, families on holiday, mad men on bicycles. Bands on Tour, looking for the big time. Itinerant musicians looking for something, anything. Every Canadian band you've ever heard of has driven over this road, stopped and pissed in the same places, taken the same pictures of the river. Quite a few have died here as well. I know some of the spots along the highway. You are seldom closer to heaven or hell than when driving this road. Gotta make Vancouver. Gotta get this gear to Banff. Gotta get home. Gotta get somewhere, anywhere but here. What kind of life pumping coffees by the side of the road? Do you dream of the lights on the coast? Of the Big Top? Dylan's bus stopped here one time. What would it take to get sucked up, into the traffic, and swept away forever? Swept away from this sun stripped diner with it's cracked and dusty windows, swept away, as if waking from a dream.

The road keeps climbing. Once beyond the tougher parts of the pass there is a little, but not much more room for settlement. Today, I'm not due anywhere. I could slip from this cliff, and not be missed for days. Long swallowed by the raging river, or picked by the crows. I guess somebody would find the car, and figure out what might of happened. Or I could just park it and walk away, waking up in that cafe, serving coffee to somebody who might of been in a band one time. You think strange thoughts sometimes, when you live alone in a car for months on end, when you spend a lifetime dancing on this blacktop. I should be writing songs for my next album instead of drinking wine in a cemetery.

That rusty sign, half covered in brush by the roadside. How did I see it, and the two ruts that served now as a side road? In the heat, just beyond the condoms, the soiled diapers, the empty beer cans: people who lived next to this road: Built the tunnels, serviced the trains, strung the wire. Worked hard, played secret games. They were handsome. And pretty. Once. Missed, once. And now, names worn away by weather, like youth worn away by work and sorrow- now they hide in this little clearing. Did they, too, dream of lights along the coast?

Along here the Canadian National Railroad runs one side of the valley, and the Canadian Pacific runs the other. At night you can watch them roar in from the blackness, hear them fade away again into the distance. Is it warm in the cab? Does the engineer drink coffee as he peers ahead, watching for something, anything to break the beam, catch the signal? Does he dream of voices, mixed with the squealing and gnashing of the wheels? I do. But I can't always figure out the stories.

I roll into Spences Bridge, BC, in time to visit one of my favourite cowboy cemeteries. It might seem like a theme, but if you don't look, you don't find. Spences Bridge is high desert country. The best apples in the British Empire used to come out of here. Orchards were irrigated by hand cut, wooden pipes. Apples were shipped to the Royal Family from what is now the Packinghouse Cafe. The first World War changed all that. Young men marched off and didn't come back. Those who did soon found that the old ways were beyond repair. Plenty of dreams broken down, right here.

My friends Steve and Paulette have invited me to spend my down days at their farmhouse on the Nicola River, just outside of town. Here, I will spread my papers out on their big, farmhouse table and finish my already late taxes. It's as good a place as any, I suppose, to do the math proving that the Tour is no longer sustainable. I go at it for many hours every day. I pour a glass of red wine. Little Penguin, a cheap and cheerful south-east Australian I've taken a fancy to. Because I can. The financial picture may look bleak, but at least I can still have a glass of red while I contemplate the columns. I take my National down to the river- just behind the house- and sit in the sun. What a joy to just hang out and play guitar, and work on some new songs. As the small shows get smaller the survival model- my survival model- will need to change as well. Booze no longer fuels the whole thing. Being legendary to a demographic audience which increasingly does not want to drive at night is not helpful, either. But this is my life- this road, these almost secret spots along the way- and I'm not willing to let it slip away so easily. A good, long run may help generate some new ideas.

I've wanted to run the old rail bed along the Nicola River for some time now. Today, I'll do just that. I change into my running gear, load my water bottles. As a concession to the heat, I wear a brimmed Tilly hat instead of my usual baseball cap. You can tell I've adapted well to Canada by the silly, white hat. There is some sun going on out there, and it's hot, so I want to be prepared. I've forgotten to pick up the bear bangers I wanted to add to my gear, but I'm going anyway. I'm living a little bit dangerously, yes- and I will also be running alone through a fairly remote area. But- as I remind myself- my chances of being taken by a bear or a cougar are a little bit like getting hit by lightning. After a visit with my friends who run the HooDoo Ranch, near the trailhead- I'm off. I have no fixed plans other than to go for 10 or 15 km along the river.

From time to time signs of the old railway can be seen. A sun shower sweeps in and soaks me- not a bad thing. All is dry and hot again in a few minutes time.

It's a wonderful trail. Running is one of the only sports not requiring wealth. It's a poor man's meditation. It's a musician's pension plan. I need to stay healthy enough to keep working. And I like it. I'm not as fast as I used to be, but I'm always glad to be out there. My GPS quits, but I figure I've done about 15 km- about 10 miles, along the river. Not a soul out here except me. As I run I watch for signs of old farms along the way. Artifacts. Eagles fly overhead. Strange birds cry. Once, above the hushing of the water, I hear dogs barking somewhere in the distance.

Back at the farm, the boys are soaked in sweat, too, and I immediately feel guilty over my own indulgent condition. These guys work hard at a seemingly impossible job- and they've been at it all day. The farm is a small, rock filled depression between the heat reflecting hoodoos. The river that flows next to it provides the elixir of life to the whole thing. Windmills, pumps, PVC pipe, drip lines, plastic covered beds. It's amazing to me that this gravelled soil can grow anything. But some back breaking work, plus water produces remarkable results. The fruit trees are already looking good. Plastic is going down to facilitate the ten thousand tomato plants now waiting in the greenhouse. People have been fighting this land, and dreaming over this land for a long time. Steve and Paulette are the latest, but certainly not the last farmers to settle in this beautiful spot. After thirty years, Steve now has a young partner to help work the land, to help dream the dream: to help fix the pumps, lay the drip line, feed the dogs, and take the odd break under the fruit trees.

It's not rich farming. It's two hands on the wheel to keep this old tractor and it's old tires straight on down the row.

After we shut down for the day I play a few tunes for Steve. When he goes into town, I go back to my taxes. Finished! I email my old pal and former partner, Colin Linden. Time to make another album. Can we do at least part of it this fall when the Tour heads south? Nashville is a busy place. I've got to work on the logistics, and work on figuring out how to pay for it. Due to the high cost of financing, I paid for my last album many times over, over many years. It's also quite clear that I can't continue to tour Canada without a greater number of festivals on the schedule... But right now, the National Steel Blues Tour is rolling along as it has for the last ten years. I'm outta here in the morning! Let's hope Alberta is good.

Eastbound on the smaller roads.

I love this high desert country and the people who live here. I wonder when I will see it again? Over the last decade I've played 100 Mile House, Kamloops, Ashcroft, Spences Bridge, Cache Creek...

The dry, desert towns quickly give way to high, ranch country...

Crowsnest Pass. Good-bye, British Columbia. Hello, again, to Alberta. By afternoon the mountains have once more faded behind me. It's all badlands now. Coal country. Ranch country. The Lethbridge Folk Club will be presenting me in concert in the back of a motorcycle shop. It's a rough area of town, across from the Harley dealer, not far from the tracks...

It's a very nice little room. With the sell-out crowd there are perhaps fifty souls here for the show. There's a reasonable cover, I sell some CDs, raffle a tour jacket... Thank goodness. I was wondering if I'd have gas money through to the next province.

A nice show, too. With a standing ovation and a couple of encores. Here's the tour jacket winner! Tonight I'll sleep behind the loading dock, and in the morning I'll make a break for Saskatchewan.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Rest of the Coast

Or, in which I play shows by night and enjoy the places by day. It takes a team to put on successful shows, and the presenters are often the unsung heros of this adventure. Presenters, friends, patrons. I couldn't do a tour like this anymore without the helping hands along the way. In fact, the Tour would not be worth doing without all these people in my life. The time spent around the edges is the reward. I notice this on this 10th Annual Tour. I take fewer pictures of the stages. Fewer pictures of the guitars. There's lots and lots of that on the blogs for the previous tours. Every Tour seems to develop it's own theme. This Tour is certainly more reflective than the others. For me. I've got a lot to look back on, and I can tell change is in the wind. This is my life, but how do I sustain it? How do I retain these people, these places?

Dr. Dave and I bomb up and down the coast. No fishing today. No crab. Just out for the hell of it. Because we can, and it's a beautiful day. At night I drive into nearby Duncan, BC to play The Showroom...

After the concert the RCMP follow me from town, finally stopping me in a dark little spot far from anything. They think I "might have been going too fast." They want to know where I'm going. They want to know the purpose of my trip. They want to know how long I'm going to be here. They want to know if there is anything in my car that they "might be interested in." This is Canada, similar to America, places where we all pretend that we actually have constitutional rights, and where these rights are routinely torn to bits by those who can get away with it. Here, in the night, there are three people on the side of the road. Two of them are armed, dangerous, and engaged in criminal acts. By morning it is just another bad taste in my mouth, quickly washed away by coffee and the shining sun.

Outside my window things are looking good. I've got a house concert here tonight. The food is crazy good. The people fun. This time the show ends, we drink red wine, but morning comes too soon. Another magic place. Saying "good-bye" is the toughest thing I have to do on a Tour. Don't under estimate how difficult that is, and can be. I load out and point the big Lincoln down the road again. Alone. I guess I must like that, too. I'm not sure, but that's what I have to do. Over and over.

I've got a good friend and patron who owns a resort on the Island. I was to play a new cafe he is opening, but as it is behind schedule there will be no shows after all. Instead, I am to stay as a guest of the resort for a couple of days...

I eat, sleep, read, run, work on some songs. Mainly I just rest. There are no expectations, no stress, no costs, no media. The days go by far too quickly, but I leave feeling like a new person! I'll catch a ferry to the Lower Mainland and get on with the tour schedule.

Vancouver. The nice parts are pretty nice. Especially in spring. I'm staying down in the south end, so I run along the river. Somebody knows what these blue flowers are, but I don't.

Here's the view from my show on Grenville Island in downtown Vancouver. It's a nice spot, even if you don't have millions of dollars in the bank.

Back on the river, logging booms. Tugs are at work hauling these, getting them in order. Moving them in, moving them out. It's a working river. The Fraser. I've followed it's watershed down from the interior, and soon I'll follow it back. Today, I run the water again. Winter is just a memory. Spring has open arms today, pretending to be summer.

Lush and green along the river. Even these newer condos look well established. I'd need lottery money, but, hey, I've got a ticket!

One of my Vancouver rituals is to run the sea wall in Stanley Park. It is one of the great, urban runs. Or walks, or bike rides. Roughly 10 km around, with a view that never quits. It is my birthday, so I run this because I can, and because it feels good!

Vancouver from the sea wall. I've had shows at the Railway Club, the Jericho Bay Folk Club, Granville Island, The Main on Main, a corporate, and a couple of house concerts. Now, it's time to bid this coast good-bye again.

Jacket winner in Chilliwack, BC. The car is pointed east. The water behind me. The mountains again in the distance...

Friday, May 1, 2015

The La La Land at the End of the Rainbow

Coming down through high ranch country. Big spaces. Southbound. This little highway does not disappoint. I'm driving into spring. Any fool would know that. Still, here are the first leaves. A rebirth. A boost. Life. The seasons of man are teased along by all this. We are not old. We are- at least for a moment- young. The smell of the opening leaves, the first warmth of sun, the thin young women sunning in the cafe patio: all this available for a moment, blurred by memories of when we, too, were opening our leaves and all things were possible.

I've taken a secondary, secondary highway southeast from Williams Lake, BC to kill off the day's drive to Kamloops, where I am to play tonight. I stop in old cemeteries and take pictures of unexceptional graves. Someday, someone may think these people may of had some connection to me. Maybe they did. Or now do. I stopped and drank wine by these gated old graves. I wondered who these were. Born in Oklahoma and died here in 1961. "Forever Loved and Missed by His Wife." Maybe these mountains are the hardest place to be lonely in. Or the easiest place- if that has to be what lonely is. I'm happy with my own company on this day as I drive the empty highway. Sometimes this is the loneliest job in the world. I could stop in Lone Butte and change my name to Bill. I could do odd jobs. Do you remember the guy who used to come through and play at the cafe? Yeah. The guy with the old steel guitar. That could be me. But today I'm driving through to Kamloops, British Columbia. I'm not vanishing here, today. Somewhere, up in the humpy little hills, I've got a house concert tonight.

It's not all downhill. But after the continental divide it sure feels like it sometimes. Westbound, I usually drive Route 1 through Cache Creek, Ashcroft, Spences Bridge- down through the high dessert country as I head south and west for Canada's "left coast." Today I exit Kamloops and drive the Coquihalla Highway. A terror in the winter, it is still pretty interesting when dry. They didn't hire me in Spences Bridge this year, so I thought I'd do lunch in Merrit, BC, instead. There's always a new act that's pretty, and sings harmony, to fill out the festival bill. After 10 years of playing these dry, tumbleweed towns, it would be nice to leave with more than gas money. At that, I still shift the car into neutral and coast down miles and miles of mountain road. I've come out of Spences Bridge with nothing but fumes in the tank more than once. There's steelhead in the river. Two railways- one on each side of the river. Eagles hover on top of it all. Crippled little farms, rusted trucks and apple pie. Cowboy cemetery with a witch buried in it. Yeah, yeah, I love that place. The Bridge. The Baits Motel. I'll stop on the eastbound swing and have coffee and pie at the Packinghouse Cafe... How can I not? These are my people.

Now, it's Vancouver. One of the world's beautiful cities. If you have the money. There's a hockey game tonight. This town is in the playoffs, so even the hookers have abandoned the streets. Will they riot in the streets if they lose? The fans, not the hookers. I hope my car is safe outside. But all is quiet. I don't know if the team wins or loses, but I'm pretty much shut down at the trendy, downtown Railway Club. The only woman here is made of wood. A couple of guys come in and watch my hands trace the guitar. My voice is a bit torn tonight, so I don't mind closing the bar early, packing out quickly to the Lincoln, driving, driving. Windows are open, neon on the streets. I lost money after paying for parking on this gig. I'll be off to Vancouver Island in the morning. Hopefully the Tour will begin to produce some actual cash returns over the next two weeks of shows. After ten solid years of playing here, I'd like to be invited to play some of the great festivals presented every summer. As it is, I have enough support that I no longer have to sleep in my car outside the Starbucks in Nanaimo. At least not that often.

I lost my prescription shades in the car crash a couple of years ago. I don't let that spoil the beautiful ferry ride from Vancouver to Victoria, BC. But it is a little squinty, for sure. I've got a little band in Victoria that I've been doing some of the local, Island gigs with, so I'll have a quick rehearsal with them tonight before the first show.

McKinley Wolf/ Doc MacLean bassist Ian Walls gives bass lessons on the patio during set up. I've had a blast playing with Ian, Dallas, and Ed. This is a band that has covered some of my tunes- so I'm always pleased to play with them. At tonight's show Rockland sat in on guitar and was great. As he said, we're part of the same tribe. We're both open G tuning guys that play in all keys- so our chords can look pretty strange sometimes! That was really fun in spite of a sparse turnout to this north Victoria venue.

Up to Char's Landing in Port Alberni. This is a lovely venue, and I always enjoy both visiting and playing here.

That's the view from the landing in Port Alberni. It's a mill town with a tough underbelly, but it is changing fast...

Further on down the road, harp player Lazy Mike and his partner, Doreen, host me for a show.

It's another hockey night. Slow. David Vest is playing just a few miles away. Are we splitting the crowd tonight? Or has he got most of them? Or are we both running on fumes tonight? I don't see anybody from the Nanaimo Blues Society. After a decade of bringing the blues through here, that's a little disappointing for me. I'm not getting any younger, and it's pretty clear that the Tours, the artists, and the venues are not going to be sustainable without bums in seats. Live music in small venues has been slowing down, not just for me, but for many- if not most- of the other, hard core touring acts. It's one thing to take a holiday from work and do a little tour, or retire and fund the thing on pension money, or get a grant to fund your losses but- with due respect- those are different songs and stories, different adventures, different worlds than the ones shared by those who live and die riding the broken white line. Still, we all need bums in seats, and it would seem that the demographic most interested in this music is less and less interested in driving at night. I sleep on the stage after the place closes, but wake up to a beautiful day. Looking good for my drive up Island to Comox. My friends there will treat me well. I'm hoping for a good house concert crowd. I need a cash injection. I'll take the long, coastal road to kill time...

Do you see why they call this La La Land? Well, it is pretty nice. Mississippi got way more snow last winter than this Vancouver Island coast.

Jacket winner at the house concert! I had a ball hanging out with my friends Ken and Lynda, and left with a prize winning jar of pickles! A good crowd in spite of the fact that the Island Festival was putting on a bash for it's volunteers just a few minutes away. In spite of the low Canadian dollar the Festival has managed to maintain a stellar line-up of international artists including Buddy Guy for this year's event. Similar to the mainstream economy, big events are getting bigger, and small events are getting smaller. Have these large festivals become the Walmarts of live music now? They do present a great value for consumers- who don't have to drive at night. A massive collection of top notch artists, at one daily price. Certainly to be an artist featured on these festival bills is to gain access to an audience measured in thousands, or tens of thousands- as opposed to dozens. In the evolving world of roots music, it would seem that the small venues and small shows are increasingly at a disadvantage. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is an observation. And as I say to many of the older players, "you've got to ride the wave." The tide is always turning.

Nest stop: Denman Island. I'm riding smaller waves, but enough rocking to make it interesting.

I've driven across Denman Island many times over the years- part of a ferry relay to get to nearby Hornby Island with it's very active blues society. My time on Hornby has always been enjoyed, but I've always been curious about Denman. These Islands all have their own character, their own feel, their own take on the world. Denman does not let me down. My afternoon show at the Island's cafe and guesthouse is full, and the people are all interesting. Plenty of American ex-pats here, as on the other islands in this Gulf. White haired now, they came here back in "the day." Draft dodgers, war resistors, dreamers, hippies, girl chasers, boy chasers, debt evaders, protesters, dope growers, inventors, builders, writers, farmers, teachers, preachers. Folks who craved a better, if self-made world. Kennedy once gave a speech where he talked about "the best and the brightest." I do believe in those troubled years many of the best and the brightest made their way to Canada, where they had a remarkable influence on it's culture and development. That was America's loss, and a wound still not fully healed.

Among those who showed up for my performance was Hillel Wright, the editor, poet, novelist, commercial fisherman, tree planter, college professor, radio dj, and former Rhino party candidate. As it turns out he now divides his time between Denman and Japan- and we've got mutual friends in the small blues scene over there. We are also, as I discover when reading his latest book, Crad Kilodney fans. A small, small world now- and kindred souls tend to stumble upon one and other! Rotary Sushi is Wright's latest book, and he kindly gifted me a copy for my journey.

Back to Victoria, BC the next day for some interesting shows. Ian Walls and I played an assisted living residence in honor of our friend Big Charlie, who had recently moved in to the facility.

We then played one of the world's smallest theatres- a fun show at Merlin's Sun Room- with local singer- songwriter Auto Janez opening the evening.

One of Victoria's many little harbours... In my downtime I ran about 10 km (6 miles) of the winding coast that shores this city. A fine time, although I later pay a price for the many hills!

Genoa Bay. My base for a few days of concerts in the Duncan region of British Columbia.