Before the final show of the tour even started, Jo, the talent booker at Hambone’s, handed the band a fistful of dollars. She was tired of charging covers and simply told us to sell merch to anyone else who came in after that. More people did come in, and merch was sold, but that wasn’t even the focus of that night – after 10 shows in 12 days, Pittsburgh was just a party, played with cash in hand.
The band had dropped formal set lists over 1,500 miles prior. The shows really snapped into focus sometime around Charlotte when the band began just reading the crowd and playing accordingly. Chicago and Memphis got more country-tinged sets while Joplin and Pittsburgh were heavier on the blues-rock. All this after the metal-tinged New York gig. That’s the benefit of playing a cross-genre synthesis of American music – you can flex the sound to fit just about any room.
The tour, the EP it supported, and the band as a whole all fit under the tradition of American self-creation. The EP, Welcome To the Small Time, was funded through gigging in the Northeast. The tour, the Small Time Express, was booked while everyone worked full time and made use of their connections throughout the country. And the band, INFRASTRUCTURE, has a “soul-punk” sound that takes swabs of influence from nearly every specimen in the American musical gene pool. Add in a stage presence that traces its lineage from Dale Watson, who was begat by Merle Haggard, who in turn was begat by Johnny Cash, and you get that proverbial and elusive sound that Chuck Berry’s cousin heard Marty McFly play at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
Now, when all that is crammed into a minivan with yours truly along for the ride you get the INFRAtour, a looping journey through the Eastern half of the US that also included barbecue side trips, suffered attacks from thieves, clocked over 5,000 miles on and off the Interstates and still included time to make new friends along the way. In essence, it was a super-sized Manic trip that managed to fund itself almost entirely through the gigs.
Some vignettes from the tour:
Philly was my first show back on the tour after skipping the Chapel Hill gig. It was also the second show after the INFRAvan had been broken into in DC and everyone was a bit on edge because of it. We’d later settle into a good rhythm of moving the gear and keeping eyes on the van, but parking and loading in Philly would prove to be a bit of an issue as the streets were crowded, the parking garage not secure and everyone’s Queens-bred neuroses were at a high.
Taking a cab down South Street to the show, I could see the neighborhood getting looser and stranger as the numbers got lower. More freaks on the streets, less cafes and boutiques, more bars and record shops – “the scene” was getting closer and closer. Tritone, the site of the first INFRAdelphia show came and went, never to be played in again.
The Legendary Dobbs had been re-opened and resurrected as a music venue after the previous owners had let the spirit of breaking bands like Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam and Green Day die under their stewardship. The sound system was new, the stage refurbished and there even seemed to be an employee whose job it was to be a perma-roadie to the acts – he wasn’t the sound man and not quite a talent handler, but he made sure the bands had all they needed and were ready to play.
The set sounded great, the lighting gave the stage some sort of disco-in-a-tractor-trailer vibe and all the gear was moved back into the van in one piece . The next day at Micah’s parents’ house was spent at a leisurely pace and filled with the cheer of his 15-month-old nephew toddling around, and his mother’s famous French toast casserole. Which was good, because we would end up losing the planned off day after the New York show.
The New York shows are always… interesting. The crowds are among the biggest and something always happens. Breakups, engagements, fights and police reports have all followed New York shows. They’re not to be missed, but always come with complications.
This time Rob’s amp fell during load-in and broke. We were able to borrow one from Reckless Approach, a Staten Island metal band that was also on the bill, but it gave the night a different sound. Already angry and frustrated, the crunchier tone and feedback caused by the borrowed amp pushed the band to cut out any slower songs and focus on the more volatile ones. Any energy that might have gone into something like the melodic “dancing music” of “F#” was channeled into the bombast of songs like “Self-Defeater .”
The post-party split into numerous sub-group and spanned three boroughs. It would be more than twelve hours before the INFRAmen were all in the same room again, this time on 48th Street off Times Square, in the middle of Music Row, trying to salvage Rob’s Blues Junior amp.
The staff at Sam Ash and Rudy’s Music Stop were gracious and accommodating, but ultimately couldn’t help. Eventually Chris got us in touch with the East Village Music Store. There, despite the preponderance of people looking to purchase ukuleles, the owner was able to fix the amp within a few hours. The day had been essentially lost, but this would prove to be the last serious hitch in the tour’s plans. Stress levels went down to normal levels and we abandoned the Northeast in high spirits.
Charlotte’s Snug Harbor is a bar owned by a man, Al, who looks straight out of early 80s ZZ Top and runs his place accordingly – pirate flags and jolly Rodgers adorn the rafters, skulls and tattoos are everywhere, and in the thick of it all is a COME AND TAKE IT flag from Gonzales, Texas.
The flag, as we learned while visiting Gonzales during TXQ10, is from the Texas Revolution and represents the reaction of the Gonzales citizenry when the Mexicans asked for their lost cannon back. “No quarter… Fuck you, come and take it” as Al put it when explaining why he had the flag so high and so prominently displayed in his bar.
One other notable feature of Snug was the tape deck hooked up to the sound system. We know about this because the sound tech had told Micah that if he went to the CVS across the street and bought a pack of tapes, the show could be recorded. The details of the entire exchange were fuzzy – something about the tech being banned from the CVS and needing the other tapes for some other purpose – but whatever they were, we ended up with a cassette recording of the show (…that is until it was left in the INFAvan’s deck).
“Oh, where’d you play in Atlanta, Smith’s?”
“Great sound, but the load-in sucks”
That exchange happened at least three times on the tour after playing at Smith’s Olde Bar. The load-in for the gear was up a two-flight external staircase in a back alley with a slanted driveway, and the staircase was only mostly attached to the building. At least it wasn’t raining.
Smith’s itself, with its in-the-round stage and strewn with the stickers of those who had come before, was probably the best sounding venue on the tour (see for yourself in the “Cash” video). But the INFRAset wasn’t the takeaway event of Atlanta though. That honor belonged to Dossman’s Symphony of Insanity.
DSoI had been together for about a month and in that time had shot a music video, had custom drumheads and guitar picks made and contracted an independent sound tech and laser light company to work their gig at Smith’s. Dossman, in his white high tops, back-length multicolored dreads and Oakley’s was, of all the hair-band frontmen wannabes we met on this tour, the most ridiculous. And while Roger, the owner of the bar in Joplin, who told us all that he was “hung like a bird,” and who later bought us a round of drinks at a gay bar, (more on Roger in a bit), was more outlandish, Dossman still had him beat.
Despite the Michael Bay level of over-the-top production Dossman added to his instrumental metal band’s show, the man knew talent. He had hired a pair of 19-year-old prodigies to play guitar and drums for him, and when Dossman had to “rest his brain” in the middle of the set, he let them do their own thing.
The pair played only one song, but by the end of, they had the crowd on their feet and screaming for more – it was as if a younger and heavier version of the Black Keys had been on stage.
That was the kind of night Smith’s had planned for their “3 fur 5” Monday – come see a few bands, and maybe you’ll see something special.
Joplin was worse than you think. We’ve been there twice before the INFRAtour to visit our friend Marley, and this time, as she drove us around the wreckage of the tornado that had hit there two weeks prior, she would repeatedly point out where something was and follow it up with a “and now that’s gone.” The schools. The church. The hospital. And blocks and blocks of homes.
The downtown area where we played was fine, save for a few surface scratches, but seven blocks away, the town was in ruins. Trees were stripped of their bark but still spouting leaves. Piles of rubble were where families once lived. Whole sections were patrolled by the National Guard, still digging out bodies. It brought back memories of the photos of Hiroshima that we saw while in Japan last summer. The destruction was that total.
The show was… less than crowded. Marley had been planning to bring out everyone she knew, but now, as she put it, everyone wanted to either get drunk or stay at home with their families. You can’t blame them, not when you’re going to multiple funerals each week, sometimes to more than one a day.
Before we entered the bar, the Blackthorn, Marley warned us not to mess with Roger, the dreadlocked Brett Michaels-y guy in the cowboy hat. Once inside we got a better look at Roger who, upon learning that we were the band, warned that “You better not fuck this up, or I’ll bitch-slap you with a hockey puck.” He then pulled a Boston Bruins puck out of his pants pocket and slammed it onto the table.
By the end of the night, Roger had become a fan of the band and comped our bar tab. We couldn’t really tell if he liked us or liked-liked us, so after he brought us to the gay bar around the corner for one last beer, we made our way out of there. Later, we would crash at Marley’s apartment which has since been vacated so that FEMA could move a larger family into the space.
Driving out of town the next morning we passed more wreckage, Salvation Army tents and a family of hitchhikers on the side of the highway. They seemingly had nowhere else to go, so they were leaving town. Having played the western-most stop of the tour, so did we.
Out on the porch of The Daily Planet, we were talking about the beer industry and modern hiring practices with the father of our host. As members of the other bands put it, five blocks to our right was the University of Memphis and five blocks to our left was a maze of unorganized crime. I tried to make a joke about it being a power vacuum for a kingpin to walk in and take control, but no, apparently crime in Memphis is so unorganized that it would be just about impossible to consolidate – it’s every man for himself, house by house, corner by corner.
And maybe that kind of loose structure is part of the appeal of the city. There is a feeling of flow from neighborhood to neighborhood, there are no strict lines of where one thing ends another begins. If you want the “hip” part of Louisville, you go down by Bardstown Road. In Memphis, it’s more nebulous, and you have options other than Beale Street .
We liked it there. The indie radio station WEVL and the food at The Bar-B-Q Shop didn’t hurt matters. We’ll be back for more.
Getting to Pittsburgh was half the battle – a 14-hour drive from Memphis that had us leave before dawn on two hours of sleep and arrive at Hambone’s Pub just as the other bands did, exactly at load-in time. It was a race to the finish all the way, but the INFRAvan held up got us there in one piece, albeit with a few strands of duct tape holding some parts together.
At first glance, Hambone’s didn’t look like all that much – the bands play in the dining room, giving it a Knights of Columbus feel , complete with low ceilings, lower light, no stage and yellowish walls. It was no Smith’s, but it didn’t need to be. There was energy in the room, and that (plus the PA) was all that was needed.
Pychobilly rockers The Arkhams played first, and moved as far through the room as their cables allowed. Getting into the faces of the fans, climbing on and over the stand-up bass, flailing about this way and that, they showed what could be done in that kind of small space. It was well noted.
When it was time for the final INFRAset of the tour, Micah was bound to his drums, but Rob and Chris had no such limitations, and after having been in the van all day, the freedom to move was well used. They powered through the set, barely stopping in-between songs and with a minimum of banter. This was the last stop of the tour, and it was played as such – every song was played with a mix of end-of-tour precision and I’m-done-with-this abandon.
The crowd – those who came to see INFRA, those who came for the other bands and the other bands themselves – were up and dancing for nearly the whole set. This was the best INFRAshow yet;, the band had sweated out any chaff or weaknesses by playing 10 shows in 12 days. All that was left was 50-odd minutes of hardened soul-punk ready to be carried over to the next gig.
One final note: In just about every city we were hosted by some amazing people who let a van full of sweaty men into their homes with open arms. The tour wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without them, and their warm hospitality helped keep any road-weariness away. So, to all our hosts, we thank you.
— Text, photo & video: Dan Meade
Music by INFRASTRUCTURE
Dates of tour: 5/31 – 6/12/11