Earlier this year, Pairdown, an acoustic duo that I play guitar and sing in (alongside Mr. David Leicht) released our debut LP Holykyle. It was the product of plenty of time, hard work, love… and a whole lot of beer! It was all worth it, though, when the test pressings arrived and I heard our music on wax for the first time. Here, I thought, is something that will last forever. Holykyle was released on Sort Of Records as a vinyl edition of 315 copies, and being that our act is new and relatively unknown outside of our home base of Pittsburgh (who am I kidding… we’re unknown in Pittsburgh, too) I figured that if Pairdown wanted to sell some records, we would have to get on the road. Touring is a fact of life for indie artists, one of only a few dependable ways of conquering new territory and spreading the good word about a new group.
Of course financial, family and work concerns all have to be considered when planning a (potentially money-losing) trip… because of these realities, my partner David would only be able to take to the road occasionally, while the relative flexibility of my schedule meant that I could travel somewhat regularly. We came up with a strategy that has served us well : we would play as a duo for local and certain higher-profile gigs, with each of us taking the periodic solo jaunt to keep the album on peoples’ minds. Thankfully, we’ve got a good number of songs under our belt at this point, and many of them can be pared down (yup, I went there) to a single voice and guitar when the need arises. Using this approach, we arranged several very exciting duo shows in Pittsburgh, including gigs with Sub Pop recording artist Death Vessel, the electro-acoustic drone duo Mountains, the inimitable Micah Blue Smaldone, and Pittsburgh’s own Daryl Fleming, David Bernabo + Assembly, Horse Or Cycle, Chris Neils, and some others. We also took a few exciting trips out of town, playing in Chicago, Cleveland, Youngstown and Turner’s Falls (western Mass). Sometimes we expanded to a four piece, which included drummers Jim Powell or Matt Leicht (David’s younger brother), and my girlfriend Minette Vaccariello on keyboard-bass.
In addition to the increasingly busy local schedule, I was able to go on solo trips every month or two, the most recent of which is the subject of this little tour diary. Booking this tour couldn’t have gone more smoothly, and the itinerary was exactly what I’d hoped for : six shows in a row, no drive longer than five hours, no back-tracking. I was thrilled at the prospect of playing with a couple of my favorite pickers, some very old friends, and a few people who I don’t see nearly often enough.
Before the trip, I decided that my acoustic guitar, a Larrivée OM-09, was long overdue for a setup, so I brought it to Dave Mannella at Mannella Guitars in Verona, PA. Dave set about leveling the frets and replacing the nut and saddle (my constant tuning changes had gradually worn them down, causing more than a little fret buzzing). When I got the guitar back, she played like a dream.
DAY 1… PHILLY, PA
I packed up my guitar, cables, clothes, LPs, my recently-washed sleeping bag, my trusty farm-animal-themed blanket and a pillow, and after a quick 3-hour shift at work (I was going to be missing several days, after all, figured I’d get some hours in) I was ready to hit the road.Because of the G20 summit, which was happening in Pittsburgh that weekend, most of downtown was shut off to traffic and Minette had a day off. As usual, I said my goodbyes, and she made her infamous pout-face.
The ride to Philadelphia was an easy one. It was a beautiful day, and I enjoyed the drive. For the past couple of years I’ve been more or less completely dependent on GPS on these trips, and, as usual, I just took the first route that the Garmin offered up, which was the turnpike. I’ll think better of it next time, though… I hadn’t made the trip directly from Pittsburgh to Philly in a while, and my jaw dropped when I had to pay the first toll of the journey : $19.10!!! I resolved to take a different route in the future.
I arrived in Philly around 6pm and met up with my friend Rob Dingman, who had organized the show. He opened up the space for me to check out, and I couldn’t believe the size of the room! Rob explained to me that in the past, property was taxed not by square footage but by how much space it took up on the sidewalk, which is why many of these buildings in the Old City were narrow but quite long. I strapped on my guitar and walked around the space, practicing and listening to the fantastic echo sound in the room. Before too long, The Shrinking Islands, old friends and one of the openers that night, arrived and loaded in their gear. Cases of beer were opened, and the festivities soon began.
Though there weren’t a great many people in attendance, the show turned out to be a blast. Local duo Heirloom opened, which featured Meggie Morganelli switching between acoustic guitar, piano and Appalachian dulcimer, and Stefan Zajic playing acoustic and electric guitars. Their sound was somewhere between a coffeehouse-friendly singer-songwriter style and more modern, hushed indie-folk. I really enjoyed the sound of the dulcimer in the cavernous space.
The Shrinking Islands delivered much jangle-pop goodness in their short set… I had put out a record by this electric-guitar-and-drums duo on my label back in 2006, and though they were no longer performing regularly, and hadn’t played together in several months, they didn’t miss a beat. Singer/guitarist Kyle Bittinger’s high-energy picking and pogo-ing and drummer Andy Tefft’s busy fills put a smile on everyone’s face and a tap in everyone’s feet.
My set went just fine, perhaps not transcendent, but with no blatant screw ups, either! I opened with “Untitled For Holly” off of Holykyle, which was easy on the fingers and a good way to slide into the set. I stayed in standard tuning for the first half, performing Stefan Grossman’s “Bermuda Triangle Exit”, Davy Graham’s “Forty Ton Parachute”, and my own “Metal In My Mouth”. Several tunes were played for the first time in front of an audience, including Archie Fisher’s “Lindsay”, and the Milo Jones classic “I Belong To You”, which I was playing in a new, higher key. Though I had planned a pretty concise set, Rob got me to extend it, asking me to keep playing since his wife Jamie was on her way over. I played a few more tunes, and closed with Graham’s classic “Anji”.When my set was done, Meggie proceeded to geek out hard over my little Larrivée, so I let her pick on it for a while. She told me that she was saving up to get herself a Martin OM, which she was planning to buy directly from the Nazareth factory. We vowed to become Facebook friends, and she promised she would send me a picture of her new instrument when she got it.
It was starting to get late, so Rob, Jamie and I went back to their place, talked for a little while and called it a night.
DAY 2… UNION, CT
After a late breakfast with The Shrinking Islands and friends, I set off for the woods of northeastern Connecticut, the region where I grew up. It was another pleasant, sunny day, and knowing that my GPS would surely take me straight to the traffic and tolls of the George Washington Bridge, I decided to map out a different route, north on the Garden State Parkway. It was a smart move, and I managed to avoid traffic and see some truly lovely autumn scenery, particularly crossing from New York state into western Connecticut. I busied myself singing Ewan MacColl’s “The Terror Time” in several different keys, trying to decide which one would best suit my voice. Around 6pm, I arrived at my old friend Terry’s house on the Eastford/Union town line, greeted by Terry, his wife Sarah, and a couple of very excited dogs.I would normally do a show in western Massachusetts en route to the east coast, but this time out I was having a hard time pulling one together. Terry and Sarah graciously offered to have a little party in my honor, a nice, relaxed affair to play some music and catch up with old friends. We had a terrific time, the guests brought amazing food, Terry grilled up some turkey burgers and had a mini-keg of Allagash White (my favorite beer, and generally hard to find in Pittsburgh) at the ready. When it was time to get down to the performances, my old friend and band-mate Jay Yonush opened up with a short set of uptempo, whiskey-soaked country songs, which he performs under the moniker Rum Glass Serenade.
My set was loose and fun, and I played most of the same songs as I had in Philly. A lot of the people at the party were kind enough to buy LPs, CDs and t-shirts to help me on my travels, and we stayed up late into the night, listening to music and catching up… Terry and I hadn’t seen each other since playing together in The Parallel Gawdheads, our version of a surf/ska/punk band, way back in 1996. Back then, Terry was endlessly championing Frank Zappa, which I didn’t understand at all (I had the more typical teen-angst driven fixation on loud, post-punk bands like Unwound and Fugazi). Of course, about a decade later I became an incurable Zappa fanatic, which I remain to this day.
One by one, the guests all said goodnight and went home. I unrolled my sleeping bag, played on my phone for a few minutes and fell asleep.
DAY 3… PORTLAND, ME
I awoke to an amazing breakfast of egg and mushroom burritos, courtesy of Terry and Sarah. I didn’t have far to go that Sunday, so we all lazed around for a while, and I noodled on Terry’s Stratocaster while he burned me a bunch of mix CDs. When it was finally time to go, the weather had changed quite a bit from the previous day… it was grey, cold and rainy outside, and I took a quick detour through Putnam and Woodstock, trying to recognize some of the backroads of my youth. I made my way to Maine, where I was to play at a new theater-style venue called The Apohadion.
The room wasn’t difficult to find, situated in a semi-industrial section just around the corner from downtown Portland. I was excited to be sharing the stage with Micah Blue Smaldone, one of my favorite guitarists and songwriters, and a Maine native. He arrived at The Apohadion shortly after I got there, and he, his girlfriend Rebecca and I departed for some pre-show Japanese food. I wasn’t very hungry, so I contented myself with a seaweed salad, while Micah and Rebecca shared a quite amazing looking spread of assorted sushi and fried delights.
We got back to the gallery and the room slowly started to fill up with people. By the time local opener Listo took the stage, a pretty nice crowd had assembled. Listo was the combination of Apohadion founders David Noyes and Pat Corrigan, lately of the band Seekonk, and local songstress Kelly Nesbitt. Their music was quite a treat, combining a lovely vocal harmony blend and the interesting combination of two nylon-strung acoustic guitars and Pat’s electric, treated generously with a wah-wah pedal. They sang several songs in English and several in Portuguese, and closed with my favorite Caetano Veloso song, “Canto Do Povo De Um Lugar”. Sublime!
I took the stage next, and instead of making up a setlist, I decided to just write a bunch of songs down, divided up by tunings. The room was pretty full at that point, and I was a little nervous playing in front of Micah, who I consider to be a world-class picker. I did my best, though. Once again, I opened with “…Holly”, and played another song from the Holykyle LP, the folk-rock track “Good Wood”. According to my list, I played “Forty Ton Parachute”, though I don’t remember it… I threw in the old drop-D Pairdown chestnut “Threadbare”, and also played our newer “No Occupation”, which Micah later commented was one of his favorites.
The set went well enough, and I settled in the front row to watch Micah. He performed several tracks off of last year’s “The Red River” LP, my favorite of his three full-lengths. As an artist, Micah has undergone something of a transformation over the years… on his first album, “Some Sweet Day”, he conjured a very old-timey sound, playing on a National-style resonator guitar and singing in a pinched, affected voice. His songwriting has always been top-notch, though, and over the course of his next few releases, he gradually eased into a more natural singing style and a very moody, economical approach to the acoustic guitar, eventually relying almost exclusively on his Guild 12-string. His lyrics are at once elegant and stark, and his sad stories evoke another time. I was able to capture this video of “A Derelict”, one of my favorite tracks from the newest record.
After the show, we shot the shit for a little while, and Micah handed me what I later determined must have been most or all of the door money from the show, a very kind gesture. We drove over to his house in west Portland, and he put me up in his housemate Caleb’s (formerly of Cerberus Shoal and lately of husband-and-wife duo Big Blood) studio room.
DAY 4… CAMBRIDGE, MA
That Monday morning, I threw down on the most substantial piece of toast I’ve ever encountered, 2″ thick easy, on bread baked fresh by Micah’s housemate Sean the night before. It was quite tasty, and kept me from being hungry for most of the day. The short drive to Boston meant another easy morning, so we lingered for a spell, talking about the various upcoming projects Micah had happening around the house, from installing doors to working on his moped. I finally got to gettin’, as I’ve been known to say, and had a quick, uneventful drive over to Boston’s south end, where I met my friend Nate (who incidentally also mixed Holykyle) for lunch.We had a fine lunch indeed, me devouring a large plate of drunken noodle with shrimp and chicken (can’t remember what Nate had… I was focused!) Nate had to work for a couple more hours, so I walked around the south end, and decided to visit my old friend Kelley Shaw-Wade at the offices of her Pinkergreen design firm. We had a nice visit, and soon I picked up Nate and we drove over to his place to relax before the show.
It was at Nate’s house that evening that I had one of the strangest, most modern experiences I’ve had in some time… Nate’s housemate John and his girlfriend Nellie had arrived, and we began talking about smart phones (my girlfriend had recently given me an iPhone as a gift, which I’d been using to document the tour with photos and videos) and the various music-related software applications that could be procured. John proceeded to download an interesting “virtual guitar” to his phone, and after a couple of minutes, got pretty proficient with it! Of course, Nellie and Nate had to get in on the action, and pretty soon we had a proper smart-phone symphony happening… all improvised, of course.
Before I knew it, it was showtime. The venue was Zuzu’s, a fantastic bar and restaraunt housed between the two entrances of the legendary Middle East Club on Mass Ave in Cambridge. I turned in a pretty good set, debuting a pair of new instrumentals. “Tanning” is in double-D-down tuning (DADGBD) and has become one of my favorite duets in Pairdown, but since it was originally designed around my guitar part, I figured I’d give it a try solo. It held up okay, but I definitely missed Dave’s complimentary guitar work. The other new instrumental, “Work & Worry”, is in DADGAD and is something of a fingerbuster, written deliberately as a solo piece. It took me a good 15 seconds silently looking at my fretboard to remember how it even started, but once I got going, I picked out a more than respectable version. Three of my all-time favorite acoustic guitarists, KG Fields, Milo Jones and Micah were in attendance that night, and they all voiced approval for the new material, which was very exciting for me!
Micah once again played wonderfully, quieting down the noisy room with his first song and keeping their undivided attention for the duration of his set. Unfortunately, it was raining cats and dogs outside, and the low-lit room was far too dark to shoot any decent photos or videos.
The final act of the night was Nate and John’s band Quoins, who defy classification. Though their music is economical, it isn’t minimalist… though it is powerful and sometimes loud, it isn’t “rock”. The lyrics and melodies are consciously intelligent and angular, and many of the songs had three part harmonies in the vocals. I was very impressed with their set. At the end of the night, Nellie and her bike hopped into my car while Nate and John went back to their practice space to unload. We all met up back at the house and went to bed.
DAY 5… BROOKLYN, NYCOn Tuesday afternoon, I slowly made my way toward New York City and Pete’s Candy Store, a lovely little bar on Lorimer Street in Brooklyn. I had played Pete’s a few years back with The Bee Gentles, a Bee Gees cover band that Minette and I formed to play tunes off of their pre-disco, Beatles-esque LPs. I’ve always loved the layout of Pete’s, the performance area being placed just off of the bar with a door in-between, perfect for quiet, intimate performances. The bartender, Sam, is one of the nicest in New York, and he gave me more free-drink tickets than I could use.
Well, my set that night was intimate alright… being the last act added to the bill, it meant that I would be playing around 8:15, before most people go out in NYC, including the other bands that were playing that night! For about a half-hour, I shared that little back room with a crowd of about ten folks, all of them waiting for their friends in other bands to show up. They lent me their ear, though, and I did my best to introduce them to my brand of fingerstyle acoustic music. I was done before I knew it, and since none of my NYC friends had found their way to the show, I decided that I would pack up and hit the road for home.
The drive home was pretty excruciating. If you’ve ever done NYC to Pittsburgh in the dark, it’s pretty boring to begin with… but when you factor in road fatigue, fog, rain and deer (I shot out of one of the tunnels and found myself alongside a huge buck, running in the same direction in the passing lane!) it makes for a long drive. With stops for naps and gas, that 4 ½ hour trip took me all night. I rolled back into the ‘Burgh at 7:30 AM.
DAY 6… PITTSBURGH, PA
Though I was back home, the tour wasn’t quite over. I had saved the best show for last, a Pairdown duo show at Morning Glory Coffeehouse, hosting and opening for the legendary Jack Rose. After a day filled with fitful attempts at sleeping, I drove over to Jeffrey Alexander’s lovely little coffeeshop and met up with David. David had been in touch with Jack throughout the day, and it turned out that Mr. Rose was at the very end of a month long tour of his own, and was pretty wiped out. To make matters worse, he got turned around trying to get into Pittsburgh, and had the potential of being in a very bad mood by the time he arrived.
Once Jack showed, though, a case of Lord Chesterfield beer was opened and everyone relaxed. I was thrilled to be reunited with my guitar playing partner, and we did a set of mostly new Pairdown songs, including recent instrumentals “Capitano” and “The D.Putnam Strut”, as well as “Cathedral”, our version of an acoustic blues. It was great to be back to the duo versions of “No Occupation” and “Spotted Eye”, and we closed the set with “Tanning”. I was very satisfied both with the way that we played and with the nice crowd that had filtered in to see us and Jack Rose.
As many acoustic guitar accolites are aware, Jack is one of the leading American Primitive-style pickers working today, and the heir apparent to the late John Fahey. His relentless touring schedule has made him an incredibly powerful and accurate player, and he performs slide, raga and back-porch instrumental guitar with the best of them. He played a little of each that night, ending his short set with a loud “That it!!” and leaving the crowd wanting more. I was completely satisfied, and glad that the night would wind down early.
Everyone agreed that the show had been a great success. Jack and David went back to David’s place in Allison Park, but I demured the invitation to come along, prefering to get home to Minette, the cozy red glow of my TV room, and then a good night’s sleep. The next day it was back to my job and normal life, if only for a little while.