Monday, January 18, 2010

LA Diary, Part 4 (Up In the Air)

Friday, Jan 15, 3:25PM
I’m on Larchmont street, which is kind of like Hillsboro Village in Nashville, if Hillsboro Village only had franchised coffee shops, and all of them were next door to each other. It might be the caffeine capital of the world. It might be the best.

No, it’s definitely the best, because I just saw The Red-Headed-Woman-From-Old School-ER. I want to ask her if she keeps up with Omar Epps. I want to tell her that I never watched the show after they killed his character. I want to tell her a great many things, but type this sentence instead.

Friday, Jan 15, 3:58PM
While playing guitar and singing in my friend’s apartment, I hear a strange noise. I stop playing and listen. I think I hear singing and faint drumming (like someone banging on a kitchen counter) somewhere below me, but I can’t be sure. Maybe it's someone next door watching Behind the Music.

Friday, Jan 15, 5:59PM
I’m due at the Hotel Cafe by 6:30, and I’m leaving from an apartment one mile from the venue. In theory, thirty-one minutes is enough time to travel one mile. In theory.

In actuality, I witness the type of traffic jam that can only be described as “foreign,” the kind of hardly-controlled chaos you see on the Travel Channel when the host visits Egypt. It’s enough to make a man crazy. It’s enough to make anyone forsake driving. It’s enough to make my gracious pilot swear like a longshoreman. Thankfully, it’s not enough to make me late.

The Hotel Cafe is a venue that has become nationally renowned in the past several years, due to the breakthrough of so many LA-based singer/songwriters (Cary Brothers, Joshua Radin, Sara Bareilles, etc.). At first, it was the venue of choice because it’s an extremely well-run and artist-friendly venue with amazing sound and a great, intimate vibe. Soon after, the Hotel Cafe started booking its own nationwide tours featuring its most prominent regulars, putting out compilations, and becoming a star in its own right.

With good reason.

The space is remarkable: low lighting, reds and browns, oak and brass, open sightlines. It's big enough to host a real party, but built for natural intimacy. It’s also achieved the highest status that any mid-sized venue can attain: it’s such a great environment, and has such a proven track record of talent booking, people just come regardless of who’s playing each night. There’s always a crowd.

These are my favorite places to play.

I’m on in one hour.

Friday, Jan 15, 8:52PM
To call the sound in this room “great” is to call Usain Bolt “quick.” It's no coincidence that my favorite venues are the venues with best sound; there is no overstating how much this matters to a performer onstage. Lots of venues can swing decent sound in the main room, but can't replicate it onstage. Blame it on bad acoustics, inexperienced sound guys, worse equipment, or anything else. But when the sound guy gets it, and the room has wonderful natural acoustics, an artist never wants to leave.

I never want to leave.

Eventually, I will. I did stop playing when I was supposed to. Although there was a point where I wondered what would happen if I refused to stop playing. Do they have security? Could I take them? Would the audience appreciate a singer/songwriter who finishes his set with an acoustic version of “Stairway to Heaven,” and a barfight?

But I’m not leaving just yet. I’m not leaving yet because Steve Reynolds is playing something that can best be described as “indescribably Celtic,” and “wholly gorgeous,” as his accompanying guitarist makes noises that come from somewhere and someplace far away. And now a bearded, hooded guy from the crowd jumps onstage and joins him on the next chorus, singing high harmony on a vocal mic that (of course) was ready for him, and now I’m thinking, “my God, that guy’s got some vocal power on some really high notes,” and now I’m realizing, “that’s Cary Brothers,” and now I’m not going anywhere, ever.

Friday, Jan 15, 10:17PM
I think I just signed a development deal with a German label. You're reading the new Hasselhoff.

Friday, January 15, 11:44PM
Riding bitch in a new best friend’s sedan, crammed in the back like high schoolers, Kelly Clarkson on blast. Sometime, someday, in the very near future, the jetlag and time difference and adrenaline and caffeine will all add up and I’ll collapse. My muscles will relax as if on tranquilizers, my eyes will lower like lead curtains, and I’ll dream for hours. I'll rest, eventually.

But not yet. Every time of night feels young. There are new best friends to see, and music to blast. I’ve got plenty in the tank, and one more night.

Saturday, January 16, 8:27AM
If someone came into this room right now and demanded I swim five miles, or fight a tiger, or talk to Tom Brokaw, I think I could do it. I’ve had no coffee, and I’m wired. Is this what it’s like to be well-rested?

If so, I might move to LA.

I hear someone’s TV downstairs. I hear cars on North Rossmore like wave after wave. The city is moving, but slowly. Dogs abound. Strollers meet sidewalk. And I want to play another concert, right now, for anyone.

Saturday, January 16, 12:01PM
I keep seeing places I recognize from The Hills. I don’t know whether I should love this fact, or be ashamed of myself. In the spirit of compromise, I announce to the car every Hills-noteworthy sight I recognize, and explain with a zealot’s fervor why Laguna Beach was one of my favorite television series of all-time, and why I’ll always have residual love for its offspring.

Look, Milk!

For such a granola town, there sure are a lot of chicken-n-waffles and mac-and-cheese options around here. Even LA-ers love their comfort food. Everyone needs a hug.

Saturday, January 16, 1:08PM
Two older gentlemen downstairs ask me if I was the one singing yesterday. I say, "yes sir, did I disturb you?" "Oh no, we were playing along!"

So that was the Behind the Music at 3:58 yesterday: my new band of kitchenette-drumming Hungarians.


Saturday, January 16, 2:14PM
I’m at the Arclight, about to see Up In the Air with a friend. Arclight, for those of you unaware (like me, four minutes ago) is like a movie theater on steroids. It’s not so much a fancy version of a normal movie theater; it’s like if Steven Spielberg made his home theater bigger, and open to the public. It almost feels like a cathedral to cinema, if cathedrals were shiny and sold gourmet popcorn. The staff here has all the warmth, hustle, and shared knowledge of museum employees. There are fourteen theaters, all huge, immaculate, sparsely populated, and filled with uberplush, royal blue reclining chairs. I’ve never seen armrests this big.

Of course, Hollywood’s a movie town. It stands to reason that they take their movie-going experience seriously. Nashville pays similar respect to its country music venues except those preserve history rather than honor modernity (replace "uberplush reclining chairs" with "prehistoric wooden benches").

Anyway, I'm excited. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie in the theaters. When did Nell come out?

Saturday, Jan 16, 5:09PM
Up In the Air is somewhere between “really solid” and “completely awesome.” After one viewing, I’ll call it “borderline great.”

As my Brother mentioned, it’s slightly weird that this might win Best Picture, but Wonderboys was a relative afterthought upon its release. They occupy a similar stylistic space, explore some similar themes, and have a comparable scope.

The lesson, as always: Clooney’s still Clooney. And you’re not.

Of course, what’s really to be learned from Up In the Air is that I’m a woefully inefficient traveler. Pros pack with joyless, military precision. My suitcase looks like someone once packed it well, stuck a badger inside, and let it fight its way out.

And I always, ALWAYS forget my toothbrush. Nobody has bought more toothbrushes than I have.

Saturday, Jan 16, 8:11PM
I’m sitting at the gate at LAX. It's dark, and everything is quiet. Nothing is on TV, there is no musak. Everyone’s anticipating a dim, long flight against the earth’s pull, back to the right coast. Everyone looks asleep with their eyes open.

Then, they're jolted back to reality:

A crowd of recently landed travelers come down the concourse, and suddenly a yell comes from security. “Stop!” Three security officials immediately instruct the coming crowd to stop moving. One person literally scratches their nose and is reprimanded: “Stop moving.” Everyone stays still, frozen in confused horror. I have no idea what’s happening, but for some reason grip my guitar case like a weapon. Just as quickly, the same voice booms from the security checkpoint: “Okay!” Everyone moves again. People finish their sentence. A little dog barks from inside its carrying case. Something--and nothing--never happened.

This reminds me: they’re incredibly thorough at LAX. Nobody thought twice about the contents of my guitar case in JFK, but Rose’s body bag got the full cavity search here. The woman even asked why I had a 9-volt battery.

“Because the guitar is electric-acoustic.”

“Why do you have three of them, then?”

“Because batteries die, and when they do, I love to replace them. I’m cruelly unsentimental about my batteries’ deaths.”

“Where are you going tonight?”

“On a plane. And that plane is going to New York.”

“And is New York home?”

I think about this question: Memphis has always been home. Sometimes Blacksburg, Virginia--the place I was born--feels like home. When I visit relatives in West Virginia, or North Carolina, or anywhere, I typically feel at home. New York is where I live, and what I love.

And then I realize that she’s not asking existentially; she’s asking because I could be taking the red-eye to New York for nefarious purposes, my undies chock full of bombs, my gig bag loaded with wildly explosive 9-volt batteries.

“New York is home.”

She zips up the gig bag. “You’re free to go.”

And then I realize: I’m headed home.

Saturday, Jan 16, Suspended In Time PM
The red-eye back to New York. I’m back in seat 22, which (again) is somehow positioned near the front of the plane. Now I’m couched between two American girls, rather than anchoring two Swolish girls. One of them smells like she went out with Lucille 3 last night. The other can best be described as “hippie chic.”

There’s a 34% chance as I type this that either of them could see it.

As a matter of fact, this whole plane smells like hippie. Which, I think, means “Bermuda grass, Indian food, and sadness.” Everyone's eyes are glossed over. Even the flight attendant mails in her pre-flight performance with a Deion-Sanders-playing-for-the-Redskins level of indifference.

It’s Saturday night, people! It’s the red eye from LA to NYC! There have to be at least three semi-famous people in first class! Maybe even the Red-Headed-Woman-From-Old-School-ER! Maybe she's splitting a split of bubbly with Omar Epps! We should be celebrating. We should be dancing in the aisles.

Somewhere behind me, a man snores.

This plane feels less like an airborne club and more like a DMV.

Sunday, Jan 17, Suspended In Time AM
The wireless on this plane is busted. The televisions on this plane are busted. There is so little to do that the woman across the aisle has taken up origami. She’s making what is either a flower, or a crown, or the biggest pick-a-color-pick-a-number game of all time. If it’s the third option, I want to sit next to her. I want to play that game. Anything is better than sleep.

I listen to the BS Report. I listen to Memphis Sports Live ("like it or not, the most influential sports talk radio show in Memphis"). I listen to the Thrills, hoping to hear some sun. It's either 10PM or 4AM, or anywhere in between. It's been night forever. The Thrills sing about Santa Cruz, and I'm somewhere over Ohio. I turn off the music and hear the recycled air hissing. In my mind, it's June; in my most recent memories, I'm in an endlessly bright place. But here and now, I'm flying over the night, and over the winter, and I can't get warm.

Sunday, Jan 17, 6:01AM
Back in the back of a big yellow taxi, heading home to the East Village. The sun hasn't peeked out on the horizon yet, but the sky's shifted to a navy blue. It's warm enough outside (38 degrees) that the driver has his window cracked. It feels sub-zero to me.

Just over a year ago, I was in a cab at sunrise. I was heading to JFK, back to Nashville. I knew I was moving from Nashville, and was deciding between New York or Los Angeles. I had just spent a weekend in New York, playing a record release party, seeing old friends, falling in love with a new place, and feeling homesick for a place I couldn't point to. The car wound its way through its desolate path to the airport, the sun broke the sky wide open, and I realized that New York wasn't a scary place at all, that it was a place I needed to see again, and soon. Several months later, I moved here.

Now, coming home from JFK at sunrise, after playing a record release party in a different city. I spent three days seeing old friends, loving a new place, living this snapshot of a life I very nearly chose, and feeling homesick for a place I can point to, like the red dot on the Delta "flight-tracker" monitor. Like the little circle in lower Manhattan on the cab's backseat screen, a tiny fixed place I'm always moving toward, however slowly. I've spent all night racing forward in time, against the earth's rotation. Half a world away, the sun and moon raced, chasing to meet me in some unknown tomorrow. And now I'm minutes from my little red dot, and the time has flown without me knowing. It is tomorrow. The earth still moves, despite me, and I'm finally tired.

The sun isn't up yet, but the sky's ready.

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