Holy mountain, how I have climbed thee
How I’ve done so, so often blindly
-- Oil Derek, “Holy Mountain”
One week in August, Wiley, Whitney and a crew of volunteers convened in Drum Canyon to cut a giant hole in the side of the bus.
Splendor has a short but significant history of very ambitious modification. But in souping up our converted school bus, we often have to go a little backwards before we can go a lot forwards.
This year, we decided we needed a real stage. Until then, most Splendor shows either took place on the bus, with the performer at one end, and the audience crammed in, or in a separate space like a living room or backyard. Over the past year this was getting more and more frustrating. We’d been using the PA and sound system a lot more, even though it didn’t fit on the bus at all. And Splendor got its first rock band: a weird, catchy, loud drums-guitar-bass outfit with Pancho as the frontman and Wiley on back-up vocals, Cameron Gordon MacKenzie on bass and Evan Arnold on drums. They’re called The Sweet Peas, and they’ve never quite fit the confines of a living room.
The builders' solution was to make a modular stage, large enough for a band, that could be launched off the side of the bus when parked, and torn down quickly and packed back up for driving and storage.
Totally, brilliantly, ingeniously, they did it. We just have to temporarily dismantle the bus in the process every time. And, sometimes, our sanity.
The first time I assembled the stage was on Day 4 of our tour, in Ojai. This is what we had to do:
First, we parked the bus with the starboard side facing somewhere an audience might gather. We were playing on Poco Farm, which is an actual farm, so there was plenty of open space once we made it through the gate. Once parked, we unbolted the double doors at the side of the bus and tied them open. Wiley miraculously located a specific baggie of nuts and bolts and started assembling the stage’s metal frame. We slid three struts out from the undercarriage, perpendicular to the length of the bus, and attached the stage legs to these. We propped the legs up with bottle jacks and wood scraps to level. There were a few moments in which we couldn’t find everything we needed, and those moments were not pretty. Finally, we attached a beam across the legs for stability.
At the very back of the bus, a mattress sits on a tall wooden frame. We dug around underneath that, separating the crap out from the useful things like amps, cables, mixers, stands, and lights. We took the big speakers out from their spots near the benches. Once enough of this stuff was located, James took over hooking up the sound and power.
The heavy wood panels that comprise the stage floor live on top of the frame, beneath the mattress. To get them out, we needed to take the mattress off, slide it back, and then pull the panels out. The panels are too big to go out any of the doors except the side doors to the stage, and they’re only a few inches shorter than the width of the bus itself, so they got stuck a lot. Pancho and I carried these pieces and cursed a lot. When the panels were finally out, we had to put the mattress back on the bare frame.
Last, we lit the stage, and tidied what was left of the interior of the bus. The bus was already pretty messy when we parked, and had been totally demolished by the whole process of extraction and assembly. Somehow, through it all, Derek and Angela also found time to set up the cooking stove and make us a spaghetti dinner.
It took about an hour and a half that first time. When we were ready, MC Pancho announced the show, and then Angela and her fiddle walked out onto the beautiful stage to play a beautiful set. The only problem was there were only five people in the audience: James, Derek, Wiley, Pancho, and me.
"So, hi, Ojai. Found my hole now it's time to die." -- Pancho
The day had started out great. We got to eat breakfast and jump in the ocean, and then the drive to Ojai from Santa Barbara was wonderful, especially because we’d just got Pancho back and he was punchy, and there was a Fadey Shades song about Ojai.
But once we arrived, we had to address a little problem concerning the show: very few people knew about it. Ojai's a small town -- 7.5 thousand according to the Census Bureau -- and we knew very few of those 7.5 thousand. We would have publicized the event online, but Poco Farm, by policy, doesn’t publish its actual address, and we weren’t allowed to either. Google Maps routes you to an imprecise location and tells you to call the farm itself for directions. Wiley himself didn’t have the address handy, but he knew how to get there because he’d been there before.
Upon arrival, we quickly devised a maybe-not-very-good plan. Wiley tracked down the address for the farm, which was OK for us to share with individuals. We couldn’t find a nearby copy machine, but we had Angela’s artist crayons, and a few pieces of paper. We tore them up and made tiny flyers. Then we split up and started handing them out to not crazy-seeming strangers. I gave one to a 90-year-old man wearing a dolphin t-shirt, driving a station wagon full of alfalfa.
“I’m really enjoying all the phones out, alongside our little hand-drawn flyers.” -- Angela
As it turned out, nobody we gave a flyer to came. Halfway through set-up, we confronted this possibility, and decided we were going to treat this concert as kind of a practice run. So when nobody was around at showtime, the show went on.
After Angela, Pancho performed. All of the sets that night were great, but Pancho’s was the most surprising. Up there on our epic indoor/outdoor modular venue, he sat down and played through a lot of hard and loud Sweet Peas songs, soft and quiet.
When Pancho performs solo, he usually takes on a persona named “Fadey Shades.” So far as I can tell, Fadey sleeps under an overpass, has a drug problem, pretty frequent conversations with the devil, and Fadey is to Pancho what Ziggy Stardust is to Bowie.
But this solo performance was different: the Sweet Peas songs are Pancho’s, not Fadey’s. And it turns out that when you take away the volume and the bass and the fuzz and the dancing, the songs are about his first love’s freckles, his relationship with his dad, his grandmother’s passing.
“I felt like Rebecca up there,” Pancho said afterwards, referring to another Splendor musician, the confessional and powerfully vulnerable Rebecca Marcyes.
Pancho might not have gone this route if he’d had a real audience at the beginning of the set. But slowly and surely a crowd of people associated with the farm, and their local friends started to trickle in. Some of them had, in fact, caught Angela’s set from a distance, and Pancho managed to draw them closer. James followed, then Derek, then me. It was my first closing set of the tour and also my quietest.
After the show, the audience was generous, friendly, talkative. Derek met a surfing farmer who also worked in music publishing and wanted to know all of our names. At the end of the night, James blasted reggae and we half struck the stage. The weather was nice and the neighborhood felt safe, and the farm was spacious and quiet. We decided we didn’t need to bring everything in before we slept. We all struggled to find our sleeping stuff, which had been moved several times over the course of the day. Wiley cackled. Eventually Angela, Pancho and I located and strung-up our hammocks inside the bus, next to the literal hole in the wall.
Wiley counted the donations. It was enough for fuel to San Diego on a tank that gets 5 miles to a gallon, which is the best we could have asked for from a show with nobody in attendance when we started. “Look at all these survival tickets,” he said, the wad of cash in-hand.
“We’ve come a long way from the days when we were too shy to even pass the hat,” Pancho said.
We tucked in and shut off the lights. James informed us that Pancho’s little, often temperamental dog, Wolfgang had climbed into his sleeping bag and was licking his torso.
“I thought he was always going to hate me, but now he’s my little bub bub,” James said.
“You guys want to do a guided meditation?” Pancho asked. We did.
He pitched his voice an octave higher, and said something like this:
“I’m Allegra, and I’ll be guiding you through a meditation tonight. This is going to be a great break for all of you from the daily stress that is almost certainly going to lead you to an early death. Now I want us all to close our eyes and take some deep breaths together…
Good. Now let’s focus on alignment, this is the “Alignment Tour” after all. On the next few breaths I want you to concentrate on placing your esophagus over your anus. Say it with me on the exhales: “Esophagusoveranus”...
Now I want you to try to listen to the farthest-away sound you can hear...
Ojai is a small town, and Poco Farm is an actual a farm. There were crickets, a dog several blocks away, a nocturnal bird of prey. I fell asleep.
The Alignment Tour ends today, but the blog lives on! I'll be posting backlogged stories from the road for the next couple weeks.