The Grambler Diaries

Oct 1

Gramble at Grand Point North

After a fun few days in Nashville we flew to Burlington, VT, to rendezvous with our tour manager Scott, our van, and our own gear to play at the Grand Point North festival. It took a layover in Washington D.C., some remarkably cramped planes, and a lot of inter-band texts of angry toddler photos (don’t ask), but we made it.

When we walked out of the airport we saw that Scott and Sierra (a girl, not our omnipresent favorite beer) were there with signs to greet us. Also in tow were our good friends Mike and Denise Zolg, a charm-oozing, music-loving couple who decided to join us for the first week or so of our tour. Mike is tall, bearded and smiley, a true Grambler, and Denise is a fiery and lovey beach-chick Holly Hunter with perma-giggles. Between these two and our buddy Jimmy from Austin (also joining us for this leg of the tour) we felt like we had the world’s best-natured entourage.

In the morning we drove through the storybook cobblestone streets and ivy-covered brick buildings of Burlington to Lake Champlain for Grand Point North. The festival is in its second year and is put together by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (who headline both nights) and features a variety bands from the well-known (this year that included the Avett Bros., Dr. Dog) to the lesser-known like Waylon Speed and, well, us, all picked by Grace and the boys. It’s a very charming natural setting and the crew they’ve assembled was second to none. We knew right away this was going to be a fun night.

Our set was a blast and a great foot to sart this tour on. The band was having lots of fun, the sound crew was dialed, and there were beautiful natural light arrays shifting across the lake as the sun went down. While we noticed (and GREATLY appreciated) people familiar with our tunes, we were unknown to most of this large East Coast crowd, and they were incredibly welcoming to us anyway. In fact “welcoming” might be the word that best describes the whole GPN experience. Emblematic of that spirit was Grace watching from the sideline, rocking out and cheering us on, something she made a point to do during every band’s set. Very classy. I was reminded of when I met her briefly years ago at High Sierra when I was just some random fan who liked her set and yet she was so friendly as we bullshitted over a few beers. It’s refreshing to see she’s the same cool chick after all these years and the huge success she and the Nocturnals have been having.

As nice as they all were, they called in to question whose side they are on by giving The Gramblers a jar of potent peach moonshine. This stuff is no joke: Two sniffs will make you drunk. Two sips will make you blind. Two shots will have you throwing Buicks. What followed is a little blurry but it involved listening to butt rock songs on Spotify, betting heavily on young children playing bean-bag toss, Seth and Scott Avett trying to steal Mike Zolg because of his Jim Henson qualities, and hiding the moonshine for everyone’s own good. (We’ve still got it…stay tuned.)

The Grace/Nocturnals set was great. They showed off song after song of catchy hooks, tight musicianship and stagecraft. Grace was a tornado onstage, much different stylistically than when I first saw her all those years ago, but still as spirited and passionate. They did some fun covers like ZZ Top’s “Tush” with Page McConnell of Phish and invited all the festival musicians out to sing the encore “All You Need is Love”. The music continued after the festival at the Higher Ground club where the Bluhms and Dave joined Grace onstage with Galactic for a couple songs.

T the end of the night Grace gave a heartfelt thanks to to the crowd and the musicians for making the whole event so fun. I think every person there was thinking the same thing of her.

The next morning, with the early morning sunshine having adverse affects on the late night moonshine, we crawled in to the van for the true start of our two month gramble back to San Francisco.

NEXT UP Catholic radio, Fox News, and Prince: The Gramblers hit NYC

Nashville Gramble

Nashville is a spot of particular lore for musicians. It is the “songwriting capital of the world” and one of the few truly iconic music cities that’s still thriving. Many a songwriter, singer and musician have ventured here seeking fame and fortune.

For me it has also always held a personal interest. I first heard of it in reference to my cousin, Tex Ritter, a country singer and western movie cowboy whose remarkable life was a source of great fascination for me as a kid. Tex was born, of course, in Texas, and had moved to New York and then Hollywood where he made B-westerns in the 40’s and 50’s and had a TV show called Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party (an episode of the show featuring a young Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline can be seen here).

Of all the places life took him Tex seemed to find his spiritual home in Nashville. He believed in the importance of country music and sought to solidify its legacy while here. He helped form the Country Music Association and was one of the first few inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was a lifetime member of the Grand Ole Opry and his wife Dorothy Fay (a beautiful and spirited Arizona actress he’d saved in one of his westerns before marrying her) was an Opry ambassador. He even ran for Senate here in 1970.

Tex lived out the end of his life in Nashville and passed away at age 68. I appreciate being in this city because it gives me a tangible connection to a figure that I’ve known only through his music and the stories about him.

The journey here was not typical for the band as it involved a vehicle other than a van. We left San Francisco around noon and arrived here close to midnight after a bumpy ride on a cramped puddle-jumper from Washington D.C. Per usual for the Gramblers, we headed straight for the bars. We walked past the Ryman Auditorium (the site of the original Opry) and some other famed venues downtown. The main strip is an interesting amalgamation of tourist trap and Honky Tonk hotspot. Its neon lights and country-superstar murals indicate it is clearly designated for visitors looking for the music associated with the town’s history (and there are bands in literally every storefront delivering that), but in my eyes it avoided being lame and actually was charming because of the spirited musicibonaire bonafide pompadoured locals who appreciate it. (The only head-scratcher was a band at the legendary Tootsie’s bar playing a Matchbox 20 song - the fuck?)

We are here for the Americana Music Association’s conference and have a couple of days to take in the city. After this we fly to Burlington, VT, for the Grand Point North festival with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, the Avett Brothers and more. There we will rendezvous with our brave and amazing tour manager Scott Itamura, who drove our van and equipment cross-country to be ready for our 7-week trek back to California. This is our first headlining tour on this scale and we are stoked (and it goes without saying that if you have any friends out there who might dig the band you should send them our way - we are probably playing near them).

It’s hard to find time to write these entries (I’m currently typing this out in front of the Sheraton hotel at 3AM) but I will do my best to log anything interesting that happens along the way. Thanks for reading, and if there are things you’re interested in knowing more about please let me know in the comments!



Part 5. Hotel Hell & Acoustic Gramblin’

If there were a giant, sweaty, leathery bison ballsack with a pillow inside it I would sooner stay in there than the Mountainside Inn in Telluride. Telluride is such a beautiful town and its high peaks going over 8,000 feet and quaint feel are instantly charming. But then you pull up to the Mountainside Inn and that charm gets kicked square in the dick. 

The architectural design is somewhere between a birdhouse and an outhouse. Except an outhouse smells better. And you deal with much less shit. From the minute we got there the vibe was just terrible. The staff were indifferent, and only were there until 9PM at night. Unbelievably, they only would give us one key per room, despite this being a ski chalet where the entire point is that different people come and go at different times. With no staff there it meant this one key was the difference between being safe and warm and literally dying in the mountain cold. That meant each of us needed to coordinate all of our actions if we wanted to go out, or just not bother going out at all. “The Mountainside Inn: The world’s first hotel built for siamese twins and shut-ins!” But the room-key fascism was only the tip of the shitberg.

The bathroom was so tattered that the floor was literally about to give way in certain spots. I actually wish that it had because whatever musty subterranean cavern I would have fallen into would have been preferable to the plastic-covered condom bed I had to squeak on all night. Is there that much incontinence in Telluride that wrapping every bed in a freezer bag is necessary?

And just in case I did find a way to sleep on that oversized Twinkie of a bed, they had a Plan B: An army of backhoes scraping ice directly outside my room at 8:00AM. This is after a night where I had been out until 2AM, drinking away my altitude sickness. It was also right outside of Tim and Nicki’s room, and Nicki eventually called the front desk to complain. The woman at the front desk responded that the noise hadn’t started until 9:00, just a few minutes prior to her calling. Nicki’s response was classic: “Wait, I want to get this straight. Are you telling me that I wasn’t woken up by these things? Am I asleep right now dreaming of this awful noise? Are you just a nightmare? Because actually I could almost believe that.” She got 10% off. 

I threw on my boots over my pajamas and walked to the front desk in person to at least get an earlier check-out. The check out at this place normally is 10AM - yes it sucks that much. I tried everything to get it pushed to noon to no avail. First I was nice and said we were stranded at the hotel until noon and it would be so great if we could check out later (especially since maid service concerns are negligible, since there IS NO MAID SERVICE but for every three days). She flat out said no. I…what? So I told her that it was cold outside and that we would probably just come into the tiny check-in office at 10AM hen we lost our rooms and just warned her everyone would be in a bad mood so have plenty of coffee ready. She pushed it to 11:00. AKA the time every other hotel on Earth always lets you check out.

But aside from that Telluride was quite pleasant. Obviously a beautiful town with dramatic peaks and…wait…no…I am not done dumping on the Mountainside Inn.

If the Devil ate some cheap wood, some plastic-wrapped beds, and exactly enough room keys for each room, he would have crapped out the Mountainside Inn in Telluride in a hail of ass fire. If Jeffrey Dahmer built a ski getaway to “make him feel at home” it would be the Mountainside Inn in Telluride. If you could turn the beating of baby seals into a physical structure, it would be called the Mountainside Inn in Telluride. 

Okay, I am done now. 

I hate you so hard, Mountainside Inn in Telluride.

Okay now I am really done. 

The Sheridan Opera House was where we played and it was a beautiful venue with good sound and a pretty enthusiastic crowd. I noticed a lot of young people, like 12 or 13-year-olds, and they seemed to be the most into it. They probably sensed that I am an emotionally stunted and wholly immature manchild who relates better to the average junior high kid than an adult.

After Telluride we headed to Fruita, CO, outside of Grand Junction. This was sadly where we also dropped off our drummer Mike. We love him and miss him already. We are spending the next week without a drummer doing a series of acoustic shows. The first night we tried that lineup out here was not a typical concert but a “house concert in a venue”. It reminded me of Cafe Coda in Chico: a small place lovingly run which makes efforts to bring good music in. Ken Krie was our host and organizer and did an amazing job. He also offered to let us stay at his house for the night which probably would have been lovely, but after our experience at the Mountainside Inn we all decided it was better to treat ourselves to hotel rooms.

The next day we were off to the beautiful ski town Breckenridge for our first show with our new touring partners, the Infamous Stringdusters. They are a fantastic band full of intimidating musicians but they are all gentlemen. They played right after us at High Sierra this past year and it struck me how nice they were. That proved to be true as they were very accommodating and cool to us that first night. They even let us use their dressing room. You see, the dressing room situation at the club Three 20 South is pretty absurd, especially for a band as physically large as we are. Our space was basically a small boiler room in which you had to duck down to stand up. There was piping everywhere and lots of various clutter making it impossible to even make room to sit down. It would probably make a great place for Freddy Krueger to kill teenagers, but as a green room it pretty much sucked. They should have called it the Mountainside Inn Green Room.

The show itself went pretty good, although it was quit different than a typical Gramblers show. It is tough trying to do our thing in this setup, maybe more than we anticipated. I think because we focus so much on trying to write good songs we figured that stripping them down for a bluegrass crowd was a natural fit. But it turns out there’s a lot that goes into making acoustic music work in a large setting like that and we are learning quick how to do it. I think we are getting there by the day, and that in the end we will have learned some important things that will carry over into the full band.

That night our staying-with-friends luck went up considerably as we stayed with Dave’s friend Josh. Josh happened to be renting a ski cabin in Breckinridge for the season with his friends and he gave us lots of room to crash out and even cooked us an awesome scramble the next morning. Score. 

The next day we were in Carbondale, not far from Aspen where we just were last week. We played on a local radio station (KDNK) who were very nice and had been playing the record a lot. The venue was sort of a high school gym converted rather cleverly into a music venue. It was a little boomy and loud for this acoustic lineup, and the crowd was chatty, but I think once the full band goes back there it’s going to be a hell of a time with what seemed like a real music-loving crowd.

We stayed again that night at the Anderson Ranch, which was a treat as always. I still have not stolen Sharon away from Corby but I think I have made some real inroads. Her late night cheesecake/oranges/tequila combo was pretty spectacular. It snowed heavy that night which made for a beautiful scene, although it made us nervous about driving the next day. 

Next stop: Steamboat Springs, CO for our first proper house concert of the tour.

Part 4. Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

After a fun if somewhat uneventful night in Boulder at the Fox Theater (at least from a blogging point of view) the band loaded up White Tiger and drove west towards Aspen. This was my first time coming into this town and all I knew about it was what I saw in Dumb and Dumber (which someone told me later that night was actually mostly filmed in Telluride.) It is a very pretty town dotted with white Christmas lights and upscale stores which are clearly designed to cater to the wealthy. That always makes me slightly wary but the people were quite friendly even to a van full of dirtbags like us rolling through town.

The venue, The Belly Up (an offshoot of the one in Solana Beach), was smaller and more intimate than the previous venues of this tour and I found it a pleasant change, at least for a night. It is an honor to play bigger rooms but it can feel really good to play a smaller place and feel more interaction with the crowd. 

Our set felt good. We decided to play the Funkadelic song we had covered in our last Van Session which was fun and marked the first time I have played acoustic guitar with the Gramblers. It was a nice prelude to our all-acoustic week-long run with the Infamous Stringdusters that starts in a few days. I am scared to try to shred on acoustic in front of those guys because they do it pretty much as well as anyone I have ever heard, but it should be a learning experience (or a crying experience). 

Jackie was gracious enough to invite Tim and Nicki and I up to play the encore with him, “Sugaree”. I went to start the opening riff as he had asked me to do and I saw that his awesome guitarist, Nathan Dale, was playing keys next to Steve Taylor, and Tim was playing acoustic. I assumed Jackie was grabbing another electric and I started the song without him. I worried slightly when he hadn’t come out after a minute. I was standing there like the band’s frontman noodling around while a lot of perplexed Jackie Greene fans wondered who the hell I was. It wasn’t until about a minute in that I realized he was playing the drums behind me. That set the tone for a very loose and fun jam.

After the show we had some good luck which covered up for our extreme abundance of dumb. We had brought a beer outside and were passing it around to finish it (a form of conservation, when you think about it) before we had to leave the show. Some headlights came up an alleyway behind the venue right as it was being handed to me and the car stopped. It was the Aspen police. They got out of the car and walked towards us. 

"I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that PBR," he said as he walked by us. 

Mental notes: observe alcoholic beverage laws even when you have a sober driver, and Aspen has some pretty cool cops.

That night we stayed about 18 miles outside of Aspen on the truly stunning ranch that our good friends Corby and Sharon live on. Corby is an old friend and the two of us have a lot in common. I met him when we were both fans of Tim’s band, The Mother Hips, years ago and we still have an affinity for the same things: Music, writing, and most of all, his wife Sharon. Sharon is a beautiful redhead with bright blue eyes and I have been threatening to steal her from him for years. So far it isn’t going well.

We stayed up having a few beers and settling into their beautiful farmhouse. It felt modern in terms of comfort but was actually built sometime in the 19th century. We sat in front of his wood-burning stove and watched the absolutely incredible 49ers game which some of us had not gotten to see live and bullshitted late into the night. 

The next day I woke up early and stepped out to check out the grounds and I could not believe how beautiful the surroundings were. The house itself has a charming architecture which is beautiful on its own, but what is around it is downright jaw-dropping. It is a large valley that feels like they are the only ones on it, along with a couple of other buildings which serve as guest quarters and offices. The view is of a giant horse corral and is right beside a river. It’s straight out of “Lonesome Dove”. 

Down the way there is another larger farmhouse first built in the 19th century with a wraparound porch which belongs to the people who own the land, Dan and Carolyn. Dan is a colorful presence with a deep Mississippi drawl who has a way of bringing you in close to hear what he is going to say next. He is the kind of guy who does his ranch work in a bow tie. He is also a lawyer who specializes in DUI cases and runs his law practice out of the ranch. To get some idea of his vibe check out the commercial for his business here. Amazing. It’s some darn good advice, too. 

That night we played an impromptu house concert for our kind hosts and some friends they had invited over to see the bonfire Corby was having in honor of Sharon’s birthday. And what a fire it was. It was full of scattered wood and a Christmas tree or two and easily 20 feet of flame width-wise. We all agreed it was the single biggest bonfire we have ever seen with our own eyes. Standing there in the 20-degree night as snowflakes swirled around while still feeling such a large radiation of heat was pretty amazing. Entire tree stumps were turned into glowing orange embers. It burned long enough to keep us out there for hours. 

Jackie unfortunately got sick which resulted in canceling our first night in Telluride. The only upside was that we got to get a bit of a later start the next day which is always welcome. On our route we stopped in a town called Paonia, CO. From what I could see the downtown had about 4 blocks to it, a very small place. So we were shocked when we were not out of the van for two minutes when a guy walking his dogs said, “Nicki?”

He turned out to be a local promoter who had actually contacted us about playing at their venue there in town but nothing had come of it for one reason or another. He suggested we go down to the radio station because they have been playing our most recent record “Driftwood” on there (which was nice to hear in a world where it often seems like the only tangible way to know who is hearing the band is YouTube hits and Facebook “likes”).

Sure enough the radio folks did want us to come in and do a few songs and interview Nicki. We finished up our meal and went over there with acoustic guitars and did it in about a half hour. So all in all it was a surprisingly productive lunch stop.

Tonight we play the beautiful Sheridan Opera House in the even more beautiful Telluride. This is our last gig with our drummer Mike Curry on the Rocky Mountain leg of the tour before we go on the aforementioned acoustic run. We will really miss him. Thankfully he will be back in the fold when we hop on ALO’s Tour d’Amour which kicks off February 2 at Moe’s in Santa Cruz. If you haven’t checked out our tour schedule please do. If you live in the western United States there’s a good chance we aren’t playing too far from you in the next month.

Part 3. The Richard Marx Suite

The show in Salt Lake was typical of how show schedules usually run. You arrive at the venue around 5:00, unload and, if you are the opener, you wait for the headliner to soundcheck before you do. The headliner this night was Devon Allman’s Honeytribe, and they wrapped up early while we were across the street at a cajun restaurant called The Bayou (where the entire band was ID’d, which we found funny as we shuffled past our AARP cards to find our drivers licenses). Our meals had literally just been placed in front of us when we got the call to rush over to soundcheck. We got the food boxed up and ran back over. 

The show went well and had a nice early turnout. One thing I hear often talking to people after shows is that they heard from friends about the band. So thank you to the people that take the time to do that and share our videos and such. It is a huge help to us.

Devon Allman put on a great show. His voice recalls his father’s famous howl and he plays a mean guitar to boot. They did a great southern-fried version of “No Woman No Cry” which was such a different and fun approach to that song. Fans of classic rock should definitely check these guys out, they are doing it well in the present day. Plus they were really nice guys. 

We left a little early from the State Room because we had to wake up at 6:30AM for a 7:00 departure to Colorado to join the Jackie Greene tour. Admirably everyone made it and we shoved off for the 9 hour drive to Denver, the city where everyone is part of the Mile High Club. On the way we recorded another Van Session, Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That”, dedicated to our friends Jeff and Cassie Jones, which you can see here. (We also noticed, much to our surprise, that our last van session had gotten over 8,000 hits on YouTube in one day. It’s tough to get that many views on YouTube without someone getting hit in the nuts by a wiffle ball bat, so that was cool.)

The long drive was again made easy by good company. Tim in particular was on a roll and had the whole van in hysterics. Much of it at the expense of the worst part of traveling this way: road food. There simply aren’t many good options, if any. Subway should in theory be good for that, but it is basically as nasty as any other fast food place now. I think in 30 days we are all going to have gone crazy from road food. 

We crossed through Wyoming for a bit and soon arrived in Denver. It is an odd town. It has a big city feel in a lot of ways, but still feels small. It also doesn’t have a very mountain town feel either. Turns out that John Denver really WAS full of shit.
We were booked at the Holiday Chalet, a very nice Bed and Breakfast oasis in the otherwise bleak East Colfax area, which was arranged by my one of my best friends who I rarely get to see named Edie. 

Edie is a larger-than-life character if ever there was one. While no one person is quantifiable by the bullet list of factoids about them, Edie’s bullets are particularly interesting and sometimes contradictory. She’s a fine art buyer here in Denver with fairly erudite taste, yet she never misses a Grateful Dead-related show in town (her middle name, Sugaree, is a reference to the Dead song). Her attention to good manners and fashion make her seem like a city girl who’s never broken a nail, but she is a veteran of the US Army who served in Afghanistan and has an unsinkable Texas attitude.  She is truly one of a kind and one of the reasons I was most excited for this Rocky Mountain Tour was to hang with her.

When I got to the room it was clear Edie had already been there. The sign on the door of my room read “The Richard Marx Suite”, with a picture of the poofy-haired balladeer below. Inside was a gift bag that included an itinerary of notable attractions and restaurants in Denver with colorful descriptions like “I hear the chef is a filthy cheater but the food is good”, plus some stuff to keep dirtbag musicians like us healthy on the road: a pack of Emergen-C’s, a huge bag of oranges, and, of course, William Hung’s “Hung for the Holidays” CD, a six pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ales (with 6 more chilled in the fridge) and a Hooters coozie complete with 3D silicone breasts. Everyone else’s room had similar bags. It was a hilarious way to arrive into town.

We went down to the beautiful Bluebird Theater for our soundcheck and saw Jackie Greene and band. They are friends of ours and nice dudes so it was extra special to play with them. Jackie was there for the very first shows I did with Nicki so it was kind of full circle to all be off touring together. 

We saw sometime-Grambler Steve Taylor who is playing keys with Jackie’s band and asked him to sit in with us too. He agreed which was very lucky for us. If anyone is unfamiliar with him, he is a very gifted player, a quiet and observant guy whose mellow nature belies his uncanny musicality. It is amazing to watch how quickly he can pick things up and then run away with them. If you have never checked out Steve or his solo music, do yourself a favor and do so. 

Our set went well overall. I had a few technical issues that were mildly frustrating, but it was illuminating about how important it is to check, re-check and check again everything in your rig. Just when you think it is dialed you realize you need to have a backup plan for your backup plan. 

But, thankfully everyone else in the band stuck the landing and the crowd was into it. Coming to a new town the first time there’s an assumption that nobody will know who you are, but thanks in large part to the world of social media it seemed that there was a lot of familiarity with the band which was nice. There were a lot of new people too and I always enjoy watching them dig on Nicki for the first time. We are lucky to play with such a talented frontwoman, it makes the band’s job a lot easier. 

Jackie sounded great and his band sounded very tight and worked the crowd perfectly. Very pro and impressive. One of the highlights for me was when Tim came out and did some of their Skinny Singers material. I love those songs and unlike my favorite Mother Hips songs I only get to hear them during the rare times when Tim and Jackie play together, which has been more rare. So that was a special treat.  

We went back to the room and messed around with some guitars. Tim showed us a piece of a song he had and we loved it. I showed him a piece I had and he had the idea to mash them together into one song. It’s kind of a Grambler theme song and I’m excited to finish it by the end of the tour. 

Edie could not make the show that night but, perhaps overestimating my personal class level, stopped by the next morning with strawberries and champagne which we sat and drank in a side parlor of the room like characters in the Great Gatsby (but with a lot more liquor stores and bums outside the window). I rarely drink more than a beer or two before a show because I like to have my wits about me, and I haven’t had a drink before noon in years, but Edie has a Texan’s gift for storytelling/refilling your glass with equal ease and she and kept me entertained through the whole bottle. 

It may have given me a morning-after-prom headache by about noon, but it was fun nonetheless. Her attempts to make our stay in Denver as fun as possible were much appreciated. She is truly the worlds best hostess.

Later that afternoon Nicki, Tim, Dave and I got together at the hotel to run over some songs. Nicki and Tim had some good ideas about stringing the songs closer together, not necessarily segues, but just having one song go into the other quickly in clusters of three to maintain momentum. With a band that has so many harmonies tuning precision is a must. We have been in the habit of taking our time tuning between songs. This time we set out to make do with the tuning we have and look for creative spots to cut out and tune during the song in the interest of keeping things moving. It generally worked quite well and should get smoother as the tour rolls on. The sound at the Bluebird was really great and the staff there is top-notch. It’s a good template for a music venue. I hope we can play there again soon. 

After the show Edie and her sister Maeve took me to a midnight cabaret. It was basically a burlesque and variety show in the basement of a clock tower.  The girls thought the show needed more naked ladies and less magic tricks (and stated so loudly), but I actually enjoyed the annoying guys between the acts who were using their noses to blow darts at a balloon target and doing poorly-executed tandem juggling tricks. Let’s not read too much into why I liked that more than the naked ladies.

All in all the two night stand in Denver was a very memorable way to start off our long run. Next we are off to Boulder to play the Fox Theater, then Aspen for a couple days with our good friend Corby. 

Part 2. Touring Season

Touring is kind of an enigma to many people - most of all to musicians.

When I was 12 I went to an amazing music program called Soundwall (which is still in operation and still the best place for a young musician to get a crash course in both playing and the music business). A guest speaker, Troy Luccketta, the drummer for the band Tesla (quite successful at the time), came in to break down the music business. This was in the era where MTV actually played music and all of us were starry-eyed hoping that once we went through the small formality of starting a band and writing songs, a man in a stretch limo would hand us a contract, give us money for a video, and laugh maniacally with us as we signed the contracts. Then we could get down to the business of being famous and throwing TV’s out of hotel windows.

What we heard instead, to his great credit, knocked the wind right out of us. He likened being a musician to being a plumber: Hard work and long hours and no guarantee of anything except that you will deal with a lot of other people’s shit. It was not what we wanted to hear. All hope seemed lost until the subject of touring came up.

Touring, he said, was the one area where a band had some control of its fate regardless of whether or not they had a big record contract. If you made good music, took it on the road so people could hear it, and were persistent, the possibilities were endless. The audience of junior high rockers left with only one question: What do boobs feel like? Okay, two questions: How does a band tour?

The answer to the first question is: Amazing. The second is tougher. If you have songs and people to play them with, how do you get from there to being a successful, nationally-touring band?

Right now, Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers are trying to figure that out. One of the reasons I am hoping these diaries will be interesting to people who don’t know or care about us is that many of the lessons we’re learning and things we are experiencing are universal. I am hoping that a peek into the process will, if nothing else, help a young band out there learn from our mistakes or maybe, just maybe, see how we pulled it off.

We headed out yesterday for the 12-hour drive to Salt Lake City. In the van was Nicki, Tim, Dave and I, with our drummer Mike flying into Salt Lake to meet us later. The group of us piled into the Bluhms van, White Tiger, and made our way from the edge of the United States (literally, as they live steps from the Pacific Ocean) across the Sierra Nevada range and through the once-treacherous pass of the Donner Party with guilt-inducing ease. Along the way we recorded a Van Session, which you can see here.

We came down the mountain into the abandoned lot they call Nevada. No matter how many times I drive through this place it always amazes me. It’s the one state that would look more correct with a Tetanus-laden chain-link fence around it. It is a complete wasteland to the point of being almost disturbing, like we should stop and tell everyone that California is just over the hill. There is nothing there. Obviously limited economic opportunity is a significant factor and the arid landscape is not exactly picturesque enough to inspire a real estate frenzy. Still, I have to believe that something better could be being done with this space than is currently happening in the likes of Elko and Battle Mountain. World’s biggest horseshoe pit maybe? Something.

After a brief stop at the Winnamucca Cultural Center (aka Subway), we crossed into Utah towards our friends Shane and Andrea’s place in Salt Lake City. We stay with friends when we can to save money, but staying with this couple is a downright privilege that beats any hotel. They are two of the coolest people you could ever hope to meet and they make our stay comfortable and fun. They’ve always got cold Sierra Nevada waiting at night and delicious breakfast waiting in the morning. Plus you couldn’t ask for better hang company in between.

People like this make all the difference for a band traveling with limited means. They are emblematic of our good fortune with being surrounded by nice, good people. If there’s any one piece of advice I have for a band, it is to be nice and respectful and surround yourself with people who will do the same, especially when it comes to band members. While this is our first extended tour like this, the band has done several smaller runs around California, Oregon, and Arizona, and one thing I am always struck by traveling these long distances in a cramped van is the complete lack of bitching, grumpiness,and selfishness. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for being irritable in such close quarters, yet everyone remains not only respectful, but cheery. It seems to be a result of the genuine love everyone has for the music we are playing and, probably more importantly, for each other. I’m sure it’s harder to maintain that patience as time goes on, particularly with longer tours, but I think everyone in the band has their heart in trying. That’s a rare and lucky thing.

Tonight we play at the State Room in Salt Lake City with Devon Allman. Tomorrow’s entry will be a riveting account of the often tedious pre-show process, as well as a report on how the first show of the tour went.

Utah/Nevada state line.

Utah/Nevada state line.

Part 1. An Introduction

My name is Deren and I play guitar in the San Francisco band Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers. We are embarking on our first extended tour playing 25 dates in 30 days across 6 states (mostly through the Rocky Mountain areas - in winter, yay!) There will be six of us in a van, crashing on couches and floors, enjoying the occasional roadside motel, all for the chance to tour with some excellent bands in places we have never played. We hope that people come out and see us and want us to come back so that we don’t need to get jobs at Cinnabon. (In all fairness, Cinnabon is delicious.)

Along the way we will try to have as much fun as we can by meeting new people, seeing old friends, sightseeing, jamming cover songs during long drives (which we sometimes film and put up on YouTube under "Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers: Van Sessions") and working on brand new songs for our third record (which we begin recording as soon as we get home.)

This is a diary of our experiences from one Grambler’s perspective.

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