Field & Highway, Pt. 1: Setting the Scene in Austin
Host Skull’s David Bernabo drives through the country and plays a few solo shows.
What follows is a series of snapshots, photos and words, from a short solo guitar tour from Austin to Chicago. For the tour, I’m traveling with my trusty Reverend electric guitar, an older Sears amplifier, and a personal contraption — a replacement bathroom ceiling fan that grazes a thick wire against two cowbells.
The tour starts in South Padre Island — well, it starts with me driving six hours from South Padre Island to Austin. I was in this southern Texas beach town for a short vacation with family.
Tropical Storm Cindy sent a number of rougher-than-usual waves our way, turning the barely blue water to a sandy brown. Nothing dangerous. In September 1967, when hurricanes could (stupidly) only be named after women, Hurricane Beulah tore up much of the island. A pair of 2008 storms, Dolly and Ike, also caused damage, but during our stay, the town was quiet and relaxed, reaching a maximum of 25 people on our patch of beach.
Touring is something that I think about a lot, but have not actually done that much. In 2002–2003, I toured as the keyboardist in the chamber rock group Boxstep. We did a number of weekend trips to New York and Chicago along with a longer six-week tour across the U.S. and Canada. There were some rocky interpersonal moments, but overall, it was a fantastic experience that I often reference in day-to-day conversation. In 2004 and 2005, Greg Cislon and I took our duo Vale and Year on the road for two short week-long tours from Pittsburgh to Chicago and back. Years later, fingerstyle guitarist Raymond Morin and I did a few dates in and around Philly and Boston. I’ve played elsewhere on short jaunts, including a fun and well-paying show in Lucerne, Switzerland, but circumstances for a longer tour never materialized.
In Pittsburgh, without infrastructure — record labels that can make an impact and have a following, booking agents, PR companies — there isn’t a lot of pressure to get out on the road. The stakes are low since there is little to be gained. So, touring, at least for me — an enthusiastic musician and listener that can barely sell 20 copies of any one record anymore — has little value other than a slightly more work-centric vacation.
But, ultimately, there is more than that.
The American South is a consistently surprising place. Amid the billboards warning of the dangers of Hell and insisting on the benefits of a belief in Jesus and the afterlife, I overheard a conversation about avant-garde saxophonist Peter Brötzmann in the dining room of Miss Olivia’s Table in Maryville, TN. In the small back room of Magic Asian Cuisine in Port Lavaca, TX, which shares space with the Shear Magic hair salon, a trio of diners positioned ultra-conservatism as a danger and a dramatic shift from the conservatism that they previously knew. Also, Pigeon Forge. Can we talk about this?
A former Cherokee hunting ground, Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood and a number of larger-than-life attractions like a Titanic Museum in the shape and possibly size of the Titanic, the castle that is MagiQuest, the Hatfields and McCoys dinner show. Anyway, driving through this neon-tinged fever dream at night makes one wonder why absurdist cinema is not more popular with the general American audience.
Henna Chou, composer, musician, and Managing Director of Church of the Friendly Ghost (COTFG), set up a show in Austin for me at the Big Medium Gallery. (As it turned out, my friend Barbara Weissberger had work in the show.) COTFG is a volunteer-run arts org that originated in 2003 and has held a non-profit status for the last ten years. Annually, they hold the New Media Art and Sound Summit festival — this summer’s lineup includes C. Spencer Yeh, Rucyl, Sarah Belle Reid (in trio with Burnt Dot), A/B Duo, and a bunch more folks. Definitely check out the festival if you are in or around Austin.
So, Austin kicks off my short run of five shows — Austin, Louisville, Evansville, Lafayette, and Chicago — all in logical driving order. I spent an off day before the show in Austin eating Japanese food and walking around. I happened by Volstead as Pilgrimess (aka Rebecca Ramirez) was loading in. Ramirez mentioned that a bunch of groups were playing — it turned out that this was the MeMerMo series that I messaged about playing.
The highlight of the bill was a trombone duo from Sam Kulik (NYC) and Steve Parker (Austin). The duo played with microtonal intervals, air noise, walking basslines, and multiphonics, seamlessly transitioning and morphing alongside each other throughout the set.
Austin has a lot of cicadas or so it seems given where I stayed the first night.
My second day in Austin was filled with art and field recordings. I saw exhibits at The Contemporary and the Blanton Museum of Art including a nice batch of Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist art — a particularly lovely Joan Mitchell painting. I also walked through The Contemporary’s sculpture garden and recorded the basis — mainly cicadas and water swirling wood logs — for a new collage piece, Opera XI.
Before the show, I met up with Henna for dinner to talk about the state of this kind of music in Austin — rising rents making it difficult to maintain a venue, the small but dedicated following for improvised music.
Load in time. The Big Medium Gallery had a wonderful sound — a soft, medium decay. Given 60 minutes to perform, I stretched my prepared 25-minute set as much as a could, and with a small set of attentive listeners, felt extremely comfortable in seeing where these compositional fragments could go. It was easily one of the best shows I’ve played in this realm. Joshua Thomson and Sari Andoni followed with a wonderful saxophone and oud set.
Take a listen to the premiere of a new piece, at the moment called “Rhine River Rhine.”
Now back on the road to Memphis.