3.15.2017

Strip Down to Texas Tour - Day 1: Nashville Bound on Pi Day (3/14)

Phase 1

I am in the big, shiny, new SUNSPOT tour van (yet to be officially named) with drummer Wendy and fellow support crew member Stuart (also a drummer in Minneapolis band SAVAGE AURAL HOTBED), as we burl across Madison to pick up bassist Mike before road tripping to Nashville today. Wendy's at the helm of the van for this first short leg.

I'm Joe, volunteer roadie, designated driver, and unofficial biographer for SUNSPOT's approximately (Wendy thinks) 12th Annual South by Southwest (SXSW) "Strip Down to Texas" Tour (as unofficially named by one Vic Hidalgo, our host in Austin TX, who I am sure you will become familiar with as this travelogue unfolds). I'm also the bassist in Madison band GUPPY EFFECT, but that fact is inconsequential to this travelogue.

SUNSPOT will perform some official shows at the famed Austin TX music fest SXSW this weekend by way of an open mic in Nashville TN tonight (I may try to get a slot as well) and some impromptu guerilla rocking in New Orleans LA tomorrow night (in conjunction with a haunted pub crawl as part of Wendy and Mike's paranormal podcast side gig).

Phase 2

SUNSPOT Mike is safely on board the van now and the four of us are heading out on the highway, Nashville bound, with Stuart now at the helm. Wendy and I are in the backseat and behind us is packed, intermediate level Tetris-style, about five tons of unadulterated rock-n-roll equipment, which would, if the tour van were to suddenly and rapidly lose velocity, instantly barrel forward like a heavy metal tsunami and crush us to death. So fingers crossed, but I trust Stuart's driving skill thus far. It's the anti-rock-n-roll forces in the cosmos I am more worried about. They have already begun to potentially harsh our proverbial (and actual) gig...

"The low tire pressure warning light just came on," Stuart reported a few moments ago.

"Really?" said Wendy. "But the van has new tires...what the hell?"

"Sometimes new tires need to spin a bit," Stuart said. "I'll keep an eye on it and see if it's just a bad sensor."

"There's a button you can press that should show each tire individually," Wendy said.

Stuart played with the buttons for a few seconds. 

"It looks like the left rear one," Stuart said. "When we stop next I'll have a look. It's driving fine; I'm not noticing a wobble or anything."

Stuart picked up a tire gauge when we stopped at the Edgerton (WI) Travel Plaza to pee and acquire more coffee (aka, future pee).

"Pressure is fine," Stuart reported after testing the tire with the gauge. "Must be a bad sensor."

We piled back in the van feeling considerably more confident in the van's roadworthiness.

"The van is still acclimating," Wendy joked. "It needs to get accustomed to us."

"It's imprinting," I replied. "Like a baby duck." Crickets...

The roadways are clear as we burl down I-90/39 toward Rockford IL.

Phase 3

Some backstory...

SUNSPOT is a Madison WI hard rock power trio that formed in its current incarnation (Wendy on drums, Mike on bass and lead vocals, Ben on guitar, and all of them on backing vocals) in 1996. Ben and Mike had been playing music together since middle school, and Wendy joined later while all of them were freshmen in college at the University of Wisconsin - Madison (Mike and Ben were even roommates). 21 years later they are still rocking hard and pumping out fresh new songs and albums, all the while performing live around Madison and touring farther afield, like this trip down to SXSW (which also happens to coincide with both Wendy and Ben's birthdays, to be celebrated as available festivities permit). I was introduced to the band some time in the mid-2000s, after going to one of their shows with my drummer buddy MG Sherry, and I have enjoyed seeing them whenever I can while loosely following their progress and growing, self-styled success. Wendy and I have become good friends and last year we formed a Mastermind accountability group to pursue our self improvement and professional goals (a major factor in the 30+ pounds of weight I have lost over the past year). SUNSPOT's work ethic and passion for their music and their brand ("arena rock for geeks") is admirable and they work ridiculously hard at music. They are also some of the nicest people you will ever meet.

I have wanted to join SUNSPOT's SXSW tour as a roadie in previous years, but due to conflicting schedules (mostly my own band having St. Patrick's Day shows to perform during that week in mid-March) I wasn't able to until this year. Most of my current music projects are on hold right now for a variety of reasons* and I made sure to black out this week on my shared Google calendars so that no confounding events would pop up unexpectedly. I am super geeked to be supporting the 2017 SXSW tour and looking forward to visiting Nashville, New Orleans, and Austin. The only down side is that my fiancé and soul mate Deborah has to experience this trip vicariously through me because she couldn't come. She works for THE MAN and did not have precious paid time off (PTO) to expend to be here in person (she used a substantial chunk of it for our tropical vacation to Florida back in February). So I have to make sure I capture as much of the rock-n-roll adventure as accurately as I can here on my blog so she can experience it like she were here (Hi honey!).

Phase 4

String cheese and apples seem to be the road snacks of choice thus far, about two hours or so into this first leg of the tour from Madison to Nashville. We determined that only the front left speaker of the van's stereo system are functional (currently pumping out a very transistorized sounding Rage Against the Machine song). The arm rests of the front driver and passenger seats are also missing, only a couple small scars in the vinyl upholstery to suggest they were once there. SUNSPOT bought the van used from a dealer in Indiana who had in turn acquired it via a Texas government auction. Wendy speculates it may have been a prison van used to transport convicts, although that is a total guess informed by a minimal number of available facts.

"It looks like the prison van in Orange is the New Black," Wendy said. "The arm rests were probably removed so the prisoners couldn't use them as shanks."

This narrative did not contradict any known facts, per se, so we went with it.

We are currently still driving through Illinois, near Dix (he he he) with about 3.14 (Pi) hours left until Nashville (today is also Pi Day...3/14). The van is riding smoothly notwithstanding a bit of unexpected snow. We tested out Stuart's live stream tech earlier and it worked great. That's for people who don't have time to read this travelogue and want just the gratis instantus of video highlights (though they will miss a lot!).

Phase 5

We just passed the Tenessee border and should be in Nashville within the hour. SUNSPOT will be performing at the Douglas Corner Cafe songwriter's circle (on Pi Day, nerdily enough), if all goes to plan, after a quick stop at Guitar Center for a mission essential foot tamborine. I too hope to play a song or two at the thing. Performers sign up via voicemail message to the cafe between 1 and 6 PM, which Mike and I, respectively, did. We weren't able to get through until about 1:15, notwithstanding constant speed dialing the sign up hotline with both of our phones.

Phase 6

We're at the Douglas Corner Cafe songwriters (open mic) night in Nashville TN and it looks like we made the cut to play, albeit 49th and 51st, respectively, which we determined, after doing the math, means we might play at around 1:30 AM-ish at best. They mean business at these Nashville song circle things. It's like a rapid fire conveyor belt of music performers. They take the stage in groups of four. From stage left to right, each performer plays one song. After all four have played, it comes back around and each plays their second song (max of two songs). Then the next group of four performers comes up to the stage. It keeps things moving pretty expediently, but right now...an hour in...performers 5-8 are just starting their round #2. At this rate, we should go on about 2 AM. I am not sure what time bar time is in Tennessee, but I expect we might be performing for the bartender, sound guy, and the few performers in the 52-64 bracket (yeah, there's a second page in that sign up notebook) who are still here by then. The sound guy and host of the thing said he'll stay as late as there are people wanting to perform. I am down for burling through the time dilated hours of mostly country-ish music to get a chance to rock here, but it's up to SUNSPOT. It's their tour. I'll report back in Phase 7 how it all went down.

Phase 7

So...we played. We powered through listening to all the performers before us and we were rewarded, in no small measure thanks to simply having more stamina than many of the later slotted performers. Luckily, I was called to the stage in the same group of performers as Wendy and Mike of SUNSPOT, and I posit that our collective tuneage was a breath of fresh rock-n-roll fire breath after what seemed like an eternal night of mostly country music. Nothing against the country genre - it is Nashville after all - but because of the homogeneity of most of the music being showcased, our quirky Wisconsin indie rock stood out like a pleasurably sore thumb (my humble opinion).

I only performed one song and did an interpretive dance to SUNSPOT's second song, "Eat Out My Heart," in lieu of a second tune. We actually made it out of the Douglas Corner Cafe a little before 2 AM, duly satisfied with our efforts, after saying farewell to the handful of peeps who remained in the venue at that hour, including old timey sound guy Donnie Winters.

Mike had Pricelined us a Comfort Inn while we were still waiting to play at the open mic and we vanned it the 20 minutes over there forthwith for a brief afterparty of boxed wine and road snacks. The problem with rocking late at night is that it amps you up and then it's hard to sleep. One needs to settle down with some camaraderie. We don't have to get up too horribly early tomorrow for the Nashville to New Orleans leg of the tour, but we need to be somewhat expedient about getting on the road by 10 AM-ish.

Phase 8

The four of us are now chillaxing in Mike and Wendy's room at the Comfort Inn, winding down after a long but completely successful night. The goal was to perform at the Douglas Corner Cafe songwriter's night in Nashville and we saw it through. I'm going to sign off now to sip boxed wine until I succumb to slumber...

*Note: GUPPY EFFECT will start rocking again near the end of May if not sooner. SKOOLNITE BENDER performs only sporadically at open jams. HIATVS is perpetually on hiatus. I resigned from KELSEY MILES BAND due to too many low paying bar gigs. YOUR MOM only hires me as needed when their bassist has conflicts. CACTUS JOE, my rock-n-roll alter ego, does what he wants when he wants (I may share the open mic stage in Nashville tonight after Wendy and Mike of SUNSPOT play...).

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