Happy New Year, fellow MD readers. I’m honored to have been asked to do a blog for MD Online, and I decided to go with a road-blog. I’m currently in rehearsals and pre-production for the next Cracker record (Yes, I still call them records…), but this mini tour is what I’ve been involved with most recently.
Thursday, December 27: The Independent, San Francisco, CA (night one of a two-night stand)
I flew from NY to San Fran the day after Christmas to start our annual Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven New Year’s run. Got into SF late, had a quick meal with my (Cracker) bass player and lead guitarist, and got a good night’s sleep. I knew I would need it after the long flight, (flying cross-country beats the tar out of me), and besides, I play in both bands. I was to be the drummer for both the opening act AND the headliner, which requires concentration and stamina, so, no socializing till all hours for me.
I woke up refreshed and headed over to the venue for setup and soundcheck. The Camper Van Beethoven west coast gear (we also keep a set of gear for Cracker on the east coast, so we have each region covered for touring) arrived, we staged the gear and got miked and wired up, and did a fairly extensive soundcheck to limber up and shake off the rust. First soundcheck Cracker, then Camper. And we sounded great right from the git. All these years of being in bands with members that live all over the map have conditioned us to be ready at the drop of a hat for shows without band rehearsal. We all prepare in our own way and converge at the start of a tour from our different parts of the country, ready for action. Me personally, to prepare for a tour, I like to put my Sensaphonics in-ear monitors in and fire up the iPod behind my drums at home, and play along to the songs I’m going to be performing–sort of a muscle-memory rehearsal without the need for the other carbon-based life forms I call band mates to be present.
This particular time, coming out of the holiday season (and having been rent-raised out of my rehearsal space recently), I didn’t get the chance to do the sit-down. But, you know what? Listening to the songs and visualizing the playing—that did the trick. Right from note one of soundcheck, I was feeling smooth and ready to go. This drumming thing, after all these years, I’m proud to say, has become like riding a bicycle. I remember back in 1996, when I first joined Cracker, I was making the Gentleman’s Blues record at Bearsville Studios, sharing drumming duties with Steve Jordan and Charley Drayton, and I happened to ask Steve (who I had first met in the ’80s–he used to come see my band, The Del-Lords, whenever we played in NYC,) “When you practice, what do you practice?” The reason I asked him this is because I consider him a groove-god, in the tradition of the drummers I tend to love (Charlie Watts, Ringo, Keltner, Jim Gordon, Eddie Bayers, Al Jackson Jr., etc.), not primarily a chops guy. So, I was curious as to what he might work on. His answer? “I don’t really practice.” That was Charley Drayton’s answer as well. Hey, that answer might be a slight exaggeration on their part (and it caught me by surprise), but after all these years of recording and touring with Cracker and CVB, I know what they mean–though I’m currently in woodshed mode, pushing myself to learn more lately, sitting down behind the drums on my own more often. But that’s a story for another time.
CVB was up first, and we put in an inspired performance. There were a few dicey moments where I wasn’t sure what was coming up in a song, but I just closed my eyes, got in the zone, and used what my singer, David Lowery, calls “the dinosaur brain,” that reptilian part of the mind that just knows what to do without thinking about it. Everything just magically came to me. I had a great time up there, loved every second. A twenty-minute break, and I was up again, this time with Cracker. We kicked that opening band’s ASS. (hee hee)
Friday, December 28: The Independent, San Francisco, CA (night two)
The difference between playing drums for Cracker and Camper? Basically, Camper has a lot of 6/8 beats and waltzes, some odd times (literally AND figuratively), some prog, ska, reggae, and punk rock—. And most of the songs have a lot of parts to ’em. Really great music for me to expand my drumming horizons, stretch my abilities, and challenge my memory banks. Cracker, for the most part, is a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll band, a groove band. In some ways, dare I say it, a soul band. (Thus the song “Cracker Soul,” and our Web site, crackersoul.com).
When performing with Camper Van, I stay totally engaged in each moment, deliberately executing each turnaround and fill, enjoying the sheer musicality of every song. Onstage with Cracker, I close my eyes and surrender to the primal beat, the all-hypnotic rock ‘n’ roll rhythm, on sort of a blissful autopilot. So I need to put two different hats on each night the two bands play together. It’s a mental and physical challenge, but one that I love to tackle. Hey, the day there’s nothing left to strive for is the day you hang up the sticks, right?
Anyway, one of the things I love about a two-night stand is that after the first night, you just leave all your gear set up, and when you get back the next day, there it is, all ready to be played. Lovely. In some instances, you might be tempted to skip soundcheck the second day, but not us. We all relish the opportunity to limber up on stage, work out new songs, and get the onstage and front-of-house levels even more tweaked to our liking. Again, in front of what could be described as a hometown-away-from-home crowd, we played our hearts out.
Saturday, December 29: Mystic Theatre, Petaluma, CA
I love this place. The sound is amazing, the load-in a breeze (with a hydraulic lift to get the gear to stage level), pro crew (friendly—when I asked the guys to move the giant sub box drum monitor rig over to my hi-hat side where I like it, there was no groaning), and we sold out again. A marvelous time was had by all. It was my third gig (my fifth and sixth shows of the tour, for those of you keeping score at home), and I was really hitting my stride.
I remember when I used to play drums for Jack McDowell (yes, the MLB, Cy Young Award—winning pitcher of the White Sox, Indians, Yankees, and Angels), I used to go to ball games and meet his fellow players and ask a lot of questions. I remember one player saying, “Some days you’re at bat, and the baseball looks like a beach ball: You can hit anything.” That’s the way I felt that night at the Mystic. Anything I tried, my hands did it. As a matter of fact, each set felt like it was ten minutes long. By the last song, I was like, “Wow, we’re done already?” You know you’re in the zone when time flies like that.
We had our designated ringer, David Immergluck (Counting Crows, John Hiatt), on mandolin, guitar, and pedal steel for the first three nights of this run, and it really added a nice dynamic to the proceedings. We were sad to see him go.
Sunday, December 30: Belly Up, San Diego, CA
Another sold-out show, and in a club that feels like our living room. I must’ve played this room a dozen times over the years. Good, loyal fans too, singing along, having a grand old time. Got about three and a half hours of sleep last night, on account of the need to catch an early flight to San Diego airport. I remember as a kid, reading rock magazines about Led Zeppelin flying to shows on their own chartered jet—. This wasn’t like that. LOL. Flying coach, airport security picking over my electronics bag with a fine-tooth comb: HR16 drum machine, a 4-channel mixer, an Airtunes thingy so David can send me loops wirelessly, wires, foot pedal—. I don’t like checking this stuff, so it all comes out of the bag. Anyway, I caught a catnap on the plane and drank a half an energy drink between sets, pretty pooped. But it was that “good kind of pooped,” if you can imagine that. I was zoned into the bands again, just knockin’ beach balls over the fence. A really good show that I’ll listen to online as soon as the tapers get it up there.
Cracker and Camper both allow taping and video, and I’ve come to use these as tools to analyze my playing and the playing of the band as a whole. I remember back in the old days, it used to be a big deal when you were getting recorded by a mobile truck, or a local television station. You always wanted to give your best show on nights like that. Now, EVERY night’s live show is documented, and it’s just part of the deal. Like I said, I like to analyze a show from time to time, and I just know that this one will stand tall among the best of them. We’re on FIRE.
Monday, December 31: Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, Oregon
San Diego one day, Portland the next—. Who’s routing this thing, a sadist? Just kidding. I’ve come to know over the years that you go where they send ya, especially for a New Year’s Eve show. Sometimes these crazy routings can’t be helped. We call these things “fly dates,” which usually means rented gear. Sure enough, I did the first three nights on my CVB west coast kit, last night in SD on a rental drumset, and tonight on yet another rental. I probably should have brought my Zildjian cymbals on this trip; I didn’t like the sound of the rental ride at all. I couldn’t get any wash out of it, just a clangy, bell-y kind of sound. I wound up doing the vast majority of my ride cymbal work on my right-hand crash. A 26″ kick drum, a 16″ rack, and an 18″ floor tom–not my usual setup. But it sounded like thunder, so I thoroughly enjoyed the change of pace. A 26″ kick drum moves a lot of air when you’re used to a 20″—. Yow!
This show was a blur to me. For the second night in a row, three hours of sleep and a flight. I ain’t complaining, but—. Well, maybe I AM complaining. LOL. I was bushed. When I’m that pooped, I have to concentrate more, kinda like when you’re night-driving tired, and you’re sitting up in the driver’s seat gripping the steering wheel for all it’s worth, blasting the radio with all the windows cranked down—. Well, perhaps I exaggerate a wee bit. But, suffice to say, it was a cool challenge to do these two last shows, both of which clock in at ninety minutes every night, for a grand total of three hours of stage time. (Props to Max Weinberg on those crazy Springsteen tours.) Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, I always say.
We rang in the New Year in the middle of the Cracker set, and the audience was absolutely wild. New Year’s gigs are always like that. Half rock-show, half no-holds-barred celebration. Wheee! I had a quick champagne with a couple of band mates and collapsed in my hotel room for another three hours of sleep before I had to jump up for the plane home.
I love my job.
Have a happy and successful New Year, everybody.