Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A religious experience with Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers

Two things you need to understand about me and concerts.

1. Previous spontaneous concert-related road trips have ended in disaster.

A few years back, with a day off from work and an evening shift the following night, it dawned on me that nothing stood between me and a six-hour jaunt from Denver to Santa Fe to see the rollicking Philly-based band, Marah, play a little New Mexican bar.

This sounded like a terrific idea, so off I went down I-25 on a blazing summer day in a jeep with no air conditioning, my only companions a few Grateful Dead cassette tapes and the anticipation for the show.

I had seen Marah weeks before, when they blew the roof off some pissant dive bar on East Colfax in Denver, working themselves into a fervor worthy of a sold-out stadium crowd, not for the applause of a handful of mangy drunks sitting on bar stools.

Couldn't wait to see them again, sure that I was catching the next great American rock-n-roll act in its infancy.

So you can imagine that I vomited in my mouth a little when I pulled into the parking lot of that Santa Fe bar, walked to the door and saw a small 8.5x11-inch sign on the door that regrettably stated Marah's van, Adrian, had broken down in the Arizona desert, and that there would be no show tonight.

2. When it comes to seeing Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, I have even worse luck.

Every time they scheduled a show nearby, often when I lived in Colorado, I was out of town, in the midst of a Broncos playoff run, chained to the desk, etc. It felt like I suffered a dozen near-misses.

When Mrs. VFR and I actually made it to the Gothic Theater to see The Peacemakers, nee The Refreshments, I felt thrilled. Much like the aforementioned Marah show, my anticipation for a ballyhooed live act zoomed sky high.

So when Mrs. VFR developed a violent migraine two songs into the performance that forced us to leave, the experience wasn't all that surprising, given my track record.

Two weeks ago, Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers played an underrated little venue called The Ark right here in our hometown.

Where was I? In Chicago.

Where was I the next night when they played Chicago? Back in Ann Arbor.

All this serves as a long-winded preamble to what transpired last Wednesday, when I noticed on their tour schedule that RCPM would play Fort Wayne, Indiana, approximately about 150 miles southwest of here.

The mind started whirring.

Baby sitting? My visiting mother-in-law could provide support. Work? I could surely sneak out a few minutes early, leaving me with just enough time to reach Fort Wayne before 8 p.m. Mrs. VFR? Graciously on board with the plan.

5:20 p.m. I grab a few albums off the messy stacks on the closet floor for the ride and get out the door. I'm a little bummed that it's a solo venture, and that no Facebook friends could see the genius of this quick-turnaround trip when I scrounged for last-minute comrades. But nonetheless happy that, yes, I would finally see a RCPM show.

6:48 p.m. I'm admiring the rural farmland on an empty I-69. A beautiful sunset cast orange rays on red barns. I let the stresses of the job and the soon-to-be no job recede for the first time in weeks as the Rockwellian landscape blurred together outside the car window.

Tranquility was short-lived.

I come around a curve about 10 miles north of the Michigan/Indiana border and find a sea of brake lights and orange-and-white-striped barricades across the highway.

"Road closed."

A state trooper directs all traffic onto a single-lane road off the exit ramp, and I start doing math. Seventy minutes to showtime. Sixty-seven miles to Fort Wayne. Zero on the speedometer.

This looks bad. Immediately wonder if I should give up and go home, if I was going to spend an hour in traffic, if this is just the latest in my series of RCPM mishaps.

7:02 p.m. After zig-zagging through backroads in an off-the-map small town, I've navigate the detour, get back on the interstate and presumably avert the crisis. I'm also in Indiana, having crossed the border at an unmarked site.

In my peripheral vision, I catch what looks like a black plastic garbage bag slowly blowing across the highway. It's not a plastic bag.

Upon closer review, I determine the object is a Frisbee-sized turtle huffing it across two lanes of traffic. He's on the striped center line when I veer to the right to avoid him.

I thought of a symbolic chapter in Grapes of Wrath that describes just such a scene. There's only one truck far off in my rear-view mirror. I think he's got a chance. Godspeed, Mr. Joad.

7:58 p.m. I arrive at Come 2 Go, the venue for the evening's entertainment. Here, I'm hit with the second curveball of the trip.

Come 2 Go is not the bar I assumed it was, with peanut shells on the floor, cheap swill on tap and a country twang in the Hoosier night.

It is a church.

A pot-bellied man wearing army fatigues and a beret collects my $10 entry fee. An illuminated cross hangs in the rear corner of the establishment and casts a t-shaped shadow on the floor below.

Pictures of mission trips and charity events are on the walls. Chairs are set up on a carpet that surrounds a stage that, to the church's credit, seems decked out in state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment.

What to make of this development?

Mr. Clyne and his merry bandmates are known for enjoying their tequila during the show. Would this not happen? (No, it would not). Would they still be the fantastic live act I'd heard about?

8:50 p.m. The Peacemakers take the stage.

"How many of you have seen us play before," Clyne asks.

A smattering of hands go up, maybe a dozen.

How many of you have seen us play sober before," he asks.


8:55 p.m. If you haven't heard of them, they're most famous for writing the theme song to Fox TV's "King Of The Hill," although fans appreciate them more for their straight-up rock that sways into an alt-country style at times.

The Peacemakers are sort of like the Jimmy Buffett of the Southwest, specializing in escapist tales about banditos, missions and south-of-the-border hookers. They bring a mass of hard-core fans to Mexico every year for a couple of hard-core shows.

That's the sort of vibe with which they they kick off the Fort Wayne show, keying up "Americano," one of their signature tunes.

In the crowd, there's about five or six of us rocking out in front of the stage, with maybe a dozen or so others crowding around nearby but demonstrating less enthusiasm. Approximately 50 to 60 others are in attendance, and they situate themselves near the back of the room.

It's a wacky group of concert-goers.

I'd estimate 30 percent of the people there had gray or no hair. Thirty percent were teeny-boppers too young to frequent any alcohol-serving establishments. I'm pretty sure none of the people in the two aforementioned groups had ever heard of Roger Clyne.

Of the remaining third, ranging from 20s to 40s, there's about 10 who seem to know the words to the songs.

Nearby, there's two twins with fiercely curly black hair who look like asexual Pat from Saturday Night Live. They would stand six feet from the stage expressionless and emotionless through the entire show.

There's also an obese man wearing a pony tail and a Randy Moss Oakland Raiders jersey, but he seems to be in much better spirits.

9:00 p.m. Americano finishes.

There's a few awkward claps, but silence in the room.

I fear this is going to be a dead crowd, and a mailed-in performance.

9:01 p.m. Clyne smoothly transitions into Counterclockwise, another excellent choice I hoped would make the setlist. It's got a catchy pop sound that's Mellencampian at times, which I figured would be a hit here in Fort Wayne.

9:24 p.m.
Ladies and gentlemen, the national anthem:

So give your ID card to the border guard
Yeah, your alias says your Captain Jean Luc Picard
Of the United Federation of Planets
'Cause they won't speak English anyway

Everybody knows
That the world is full of stupid people
So meet me at the mission at midnight
We'll divvy up there

9:33 p.m. The crowd is stirring a little bit, just enough to eliminate the stony awkwardness.

Some of the folks, chiefly the asexual Pat twins, remind me of the people I met at the Christmas Cult Party of 1999, which I attended with my friend Brian Roth, at which I met Tom Petty, The Heartbreaker, not to be confused with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

The vibe is the same.

So much like I did at that party, I attempt to view my fellow concert-goers with a wide lens and enjoy the wackiness for what it is: A rock concert in a church. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I'm even trying to look on the bright side. An audience from all walks of life -- teeny-boppers, grandmothers and a few toothless folk -- unified by the holy spirit of rock-n-roll. Reverend Roger Clyne presiding.

That's kinda cool.

11:02 p.m. Whatever thoughts there are about the crowd, there's no mailing it in from the band.

They put the finishing touches a 2-hour, 15-minute show that is well worth the drive down, well worth the years-long wait. All told, they probably played about 24 songs, reaching back into their early catalog for much of the setlist.

They spent the last half hour or so taking requests from the audience, and finished the night with "Switchblade," a request from yours truly.

I was just as impressed with them after the show. Mr. Clyne and his bandmates stayed around and chatted with anyone who wanted to talk. No big-timing it out of the venue or anything. They have some serious cred, but they don't take themselves too seriously.

They heaped a good deal of attention on a kid who stood up front who looked about eight years old, and was definitely attending his first concert, which was particularly good to see. The kid ate it up, and walked out with a pair of drumsticks, among other souvenirs.

The guy who appeared to be running the show at Come 2 Go also did a bit of crowd-working afterward, making sure everyone had a good time and chatting with his congregants, all in a sincere, genuine fashion.

All in all, the Come 2 Go people seemed like nothing but nice Midwesterners. Kudos to them for their show and hospitality.

Someday, I'd love to hear their story of how they started dabbling in the business of hosting rock acts. For this night, though, it was time to hit the highway and get home.

11:48 p.m. Back on the highway somewhere near Angola, Indiana, and I realize I haven't eaten anything but a granola bar and banana since lunch. Desperate, I stop for my first bout of fast food since September 2007, when I grabbed some Burger King on the way to Nathan's apartment for our very first project meeting.

"Welcome to Wendy's, can I take your order?"

"Yes, what's the least-disgusting thing on your menu?"

1:37 a.m. After a fairly brutal drive spent enveloped in a blanket of thick fog, I finally roll into D-Town. Two vile strips of fry-pit burger lurch in my stomach, and I'm thankful to be home.

I check on Baby VFR, eat some cereal and sack out as soon as my head hits pillow.

All in all, a very enjoyable experience for a Wednesday night.

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At 10:22 PM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

Cat, you're hard core.

I was excited to see an SNL's just too bad it revolved around "Pat"...a character whose film bombed worse than the coaching tenure of Terry Shea.


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