“If I know something, it’s the wind in canyon
Off the ocean in midsummer
It’s cold in California in July
Don’t pick the poppies or you’ll die
Or go to prison”
-- “Mother California” Mikayla McVey
The bus was parked across several spaces in the lot outside a Von’s in Los Angeles. Everyone but Victoria, Wiley, and I were inside shopping. Wiley lay supine on a bus bench built to accommodate his height. He was looking at the ceiling when he spoke, but he addressed me.
“Six months of this, Rosie,” Wiley said. “What’s that going to look like? Am I going to die?”
Wiley was referring to the national “United Snakes of America” tour: the dream towards which Splendor has been building for its entire life. At least so far as I know.
While every Splendor tour to date has been a couple weeks long, and stayed on the West Coast, when it happens the national tour will take several months, over which the bus will crisscross the country playing shows along the way. It will see the Southwest, and the Southwest will see it, as will the Southeast, the Northeast, the Midwest. The crew will rotate, musicians will substitute in and out for a few weeks or months at a time, meeting the bus in their hometown or flying out to make the rendezvous. During particularly populous periods, there will be a caravan of multiple vehicles. It will be like Furthur but with better art and fewer drugs, it will be like a butterfly migration, it will be like a jackalope on rollerskates, it will be like nothing anybody has ever done before, it will spread Splendor and its particular brand of beauty and strangeness All Around. And, at least as Wiley has conceived it, he’s going to be there for all of it, and he and the bus might find a new as-long-as-it-suits-them home at the end of the road.
Some might question my use of the future tense in that last paragraph -- my use of “will” to describe the plan instead of a gentler “would." Those people probably haven’t met my friends.
Those people probably also haven’t seen the bus lately, or at least not taken the time to really consider its after-market raised canopy, gem-bubble top-knot, modular sidestage. Those people probably haven’t ever really listened to a song produced by James Wallace. My friends are gifted, motivated, and they work hard. It’s not always a straight path from A to B, but at the end of the day, my friends are remarkable, and remarkably good at executing their batshit crazy plans.
But, sometimes, my friends lose track and bite off more than they can chew.
Sometimes, like the morning of Day 8, the end of a long weekend, as we prepared to head out to our all-day, fourteen act music festival in Topanga Canyon, my friends get tired.
“Well, Wiley,” I said, “other people should help with the driving. Like, a lot.”
“Also isn’t the plan to do longer residencies in cities and metropolitan areas, like we’re doing in LA? So you’re not on the road at least six hours every day?”
“Sure,” he conceded, covering his face with his palm. “Yes, definitely. That is definitely the plan. That will definitely be easier.”
If we don’t want Wiley to die on the United Snakes of America tour, the hard part is going to be in the organizing. As in:
- training other drivers,
- lining enough gigs up per town to make staying in one place worth it,
- lining up places to park,
- scheduling meals,
- making sure the bus is free of contraband every time it crosses into a state with more restrictive drug laws,
- communicating and coordinating with the group which is frequently large and unwieldy, and
- developing some kind of “managerial” “governmental” “bureaucratic” structure where all this responsibility and more is distributed across many reliable people, and Wiley isn’t the default point person for everything.
A lot of people put in a lot of work on the Alignment Tour: planning and setting up shows, and setting up for shows, and running shows, and cooking, and cleaning, and talking on the phone, and parking. But a lot fell through the cracks, and a lot fell on Wiley.
And if we don’t figure out how to fix all of that but do a six month tour anyways, then, yes: Wiley will probably die. Or go to prison. And he might not be the only one.
Two hours and several pounds of groceries later, we were on Cross Bull Ranch in Topanga Canyon. Wiley was yet again building the stage. And (speaking of working hard setting up for shows) I was on a small committee formed to build a DIY port-a-potty.
If you are throwing an outdoor festival, and due to circumstances beyond your control find yourself in the unfortunate position of needing a port-a-potty in a hurry, consider building one! I can now honestly say from first-hand experience that it is not that bad! Really!
Here is what you do:
- Get two buckets.
- Fill one with sawdust and line the other with a trash bag.
- Make a “scooper” for the sawdust out of whatever you got (we used a paper cup).
- Do your best to immobilize the toilet bucket, either by leaving rocks in it beneath the trash bag, or digging a shallow hole, or propping rocks up against it, or some combination.
- Provide toilet paper
- Make an instructional pamphlet on appropriate usage.
- Use a water jug with a spigot as a hand-wash station.
- If you are lucky enough to have a loose toilet bowl seat and lid lying around, put those on top, and it can be a sit-down establishment instead of just a squat-popping haven.
- If privacy is a concern (it was for us), make a stall! We used old pallets, lashed together with wire, a metal dowel and a shower curtain.
Props to Megan for the project’s overall design, Angela for the signage, Derek the structural integrity of the stall (and modeling), and all the women on port-a-potty duty for brainstorming, rock lifting, and general moral support. Special thanks to anybody who was there in the morning, when we had to haul out the waste. (Cleanup was less work than it might have been. Lisa, the sweet woman who owned the ranch, liked our stall and buckets so much that she decided to keep them as a semi-permanent structure. So we were only responsible for the “waste,” which we triple-bagged and handled with care. And gloves.)
A urinal can be made out of a third bucket, with a hole cut in the lid, and a funnel. Be physically and emotionally prepared for this to fill up (ours did).
Once we fully structured our structures, it was showtime. Two stages (right next to each other -- no simultaneous sets), and fourteen acts.
I will try to share something I didn't know about each performer, with the disclaimers that: (1) everyone was obviously amazing because that's how Splendor rolls, (2) this list is real uneven in terms of kinds of information but (2a) I already knew more about some musicians than others and, (2b) I passed through different levels of awareness/aliveness/self-absorption throughout the day as my ego, circadian rhythms, and blood sugar and blood alcohol allowed.
Here is what happened and in roughly what order:
Jenny Long -- A fellow growly lady-vocalist. Songs about pain and healing and psychology as a metaphor for nature and vice verse, wolves.
Rosie Cima -- Me! A bug kept trying to eat my eyes while I sang, so I kept them shut. Jeremy told me that when I took off my hat and all the hair tucked up in it fell down it was a “dramatic moment.” When I dared open my eyes, I'd never had such a beautiful view from a stage.
Tim Conrad -- A local, sort of: he time banked for Lisa clearing brush before the festival. Keys, feelings, sparrows, melancholy, groovy.
Neighbor lady (Beth? I think?) -- Danced on a porch while we all in the canyon, and her friends on the porch, sang her happy birthday.
Mikayla McVey -- She was born to sing those songs in that canyon with and for those people. There was a Derek/her duet that really got me. “I Love America Because Everyone Is Trying Really Hard”, which is about hitting a deer with your car and crying. There's a beautiful Lemon Tree Sessions video of her singing it solo.
In the middle of setting up, I was on my way to the DIY port-a-potty absent-mindedly belting a song, when I came round a corner and saw Mikayla practicing and realized I was singing one of her songs. Whenever I see Mikayla play I feel like I get all her songs stuck in my head on repeat until I see her play again, so I’m counting down the minutes until her record comes out.
Jonathan Rosen -- Went to high school with Mikayla, they took a songwriting class together a long time ago and are both still writing music, still personal and different. Wide range of psychedelic to funny to personal and heartbreaking, all strikingly different looks on the same guy with an acoustic guitar.
Lisa -- Our Lady of Topanga. Set up shop and served soup with foraged greens, herb-infused water, and date cookie/bar things.
Pancho Morris & the Sweet Peas -- For the first and only time on the road, we got the full-on Pancho and the Sweet Peas experience. They are a force of nature, and it was great to see them on their largest stage yet, playing as loud as they wanted. We danced. Rocked so hard the sun went down.
Whitney -- Made cocktails out of gin and cucumber and ambrosia.
Everyone -- Looked great, especially Wolfgang.
Hundred Mile House (Tom Schulz) -- The first after-dark set, 100% magic. A pretty finger-picker, the person who co-produced and mixed the new Christina’s World album. He sang a few good ol’ country covers in addition to the good ol’ originals, and he definitely had some good ol’ originals.
Laura Jean Anderson -- Total rockstar. Blues/rock vocals over an electric guitar, hit me in the stomach, one-woman act but made you want to dance (though by then I was glued to the ground/snuggles.) Woke me right up as I started to wane in the middle of a long day of music, so good it made me feel bad about myself. I told Wiley and he responded, “We all feel bad about ourselves, Rosie,” and for some reason I felt better. Maybe because I needed somebody to tell me it was OK to feel bad. Check her out!
Skyway Man (James Wallace) -- Unlucky enough to have to transition mid-set. The rain didn’t come down hard or long but -- as we’d all been cautioned many times -- even a little bit of dampness would spell doom for some of his equipment. So when rain threatened, inside we went.
James is a showman and a seasoned pro, but one of my favorite ways to see him perform is on the very edge of composure. Apparently even seasoned pros can get a little flustered on a stage, especially when something goes wrong. And sometimes getting flustered cracks James open in a really beautiful way.
We ended up piled on the bus, breath caught in our throats like the rain caught in the air, as he made a 14 minute story-song out of a 10 minute story-song because he kept pausing after verses to talk to us as he tried to remember the next one, which were about suicide and murder and were beautiful and sad and funny but not in a jokey way, and somehow kept the audience in the palm of his hand. Or maybe it was just me, maybe I’m a sucker. And when the chorus finally came again, I sang along.
(You can listen to the album version using the player at the right. There's also a video of James and his band playing the song a long time ago in Nashville.)
Casey Jane -- Flew out from New Orleans to meet us and joined for the rest of the tour. Only played a few songs at Topanga, because she was road-weary and getting over an illness. The songs were rootsy, sad, and sweet. One of the prettiest timbres I’ve ever heard without a microphone. If human voices are fiddles, Casey Jane’s got a Stradivarius or something close, and I want her to play it ‘til the cows come home.
Oil Derek (Derek Clatterbuck) -- I always look forward to Derek’s set because I know regardless of how late it is or how tired I am I’m not going to have to work to love it, I’m just going to love it, and I’m stoked to be associated with such a stand-up, sit-down, open-tuning, mountain-courting, barn-raising, long-bearded man who could call up the ocean, call down the moon.
Bradford -- In the morning he’d reveal himself to be a walking, talking, bus-driving, orchestra-toting, music-loving friend man. But that night he was a stranger to me, a stranger who sang 1960s doo-wop-like songs like a 2000s singer-songwriter, and sang them well.
Christina’s World (Megan Pfefferkorn) -- Megan was kind of the kingpin of the festival: she had found the ranch and brought in the plurality of the acts. The mob that we had crammed onto the bus was essentially a mob of her people. Something special happens to me when I play music for my friends, in a space that feels like home, and I’m pretty sure I saw it happen to Megan, then. The layers of self-consciousness, or even performance/projection, diminish to a hairsbreadth. Reality bent around her, the songs moved through the audience as easily as sound through air.
At the end of her set, somehow James talked her and Pancho into singing the song "Abeline" from their old band The Trees, and it was incredible and I recorded it on my phone.
Teddy Lee Wilder (and Angela and me) -- Teddy drove down from the bay just for the night, on his way to Arizona. He made it down in time for to play. I’ve known him and have been making music with him for 3 years now and he’s come miles as a performer, musician, and writer, and I couldn’t be prouder of him. I had the pleasure of singing back-up to a couple of his songs, and Angela broke out her fiddle, he also sang the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City," and everyone sang along.
The party experienced gradual attrition as the hours grew long. When Mikayla’s Uber arrived, and she was reluctant to leave, James told her to invite the driver to join us. (“Maybe they need to be reminded that they live in a David Lynch film!” he said.) But by the time Teddy’s set ended, the bus was still full of dozens of people.
And then, somehow, it seemed like most people stayed awake and kept making music. I, however, was not among the living.
There is the ghost of a plan for making this whole operation a little less snakey. We put some of it in a recent proposal for an arts grant. I say “we” but I didn’t write any of it and still haven’t actually seen this proposal, not because people are hiding it from me, but because I’m a slacker. But I’ve heard that I’m named in it as Rosie “Pink Noise” Cima (thanks for the nickname Panch!), and that the plan takes some of the weight off of Wiley “Bird Dog” Rogers’ shoulders.
But as we’ve already discussed, by morning of Day 8 of the Alignment Tour, Bird Dog was tired. And then all of the above happened, so by nightfall, he was very very tired. He eventually gave up on trying to shut down the party so he could get some sleep, and walked off to sleep in a field somewhere. (And, unfortunately, get rained on.)
Given the right circumstances, it turns out that the bus has the sleeping capacity of a small hostel. We rolled deep that night: we had hammock-sleepers and mattress-sleepers and floor-sleepers and ground-sleepers and roof-sleepers. I was an ear-plugs-mattress-sleeper, which meant I was one of the last to wake up in the morning.
When the day finally hit me, I was greeted by the breakfast-that-was-supposed-to-be-our-dinner, a rotating bluegrass combo, and a yellow bus-van belonging to Bradford, which became a follow-vehicle on our little convoy.
Organizing gets harder the more people there are, but adding new faces to tour definitely boosts morale. While just a few days before there were only five of us, the morning of Day 9 we hit the high teens. Lisa came by and gave us her blessing for the road ahead. Angela found cochineal on some cacti and crushed them into face paint. We "took care" of the port-a-potty waste. Someone realized that one of the curlicues off the rooftop couch would look really nice on Splendor's nose.
Then it was all aboard who's going aboard, and we headed for the desert.
The Alignment Tour is over, but the blog lives on! I'll be posting backlogged stories from the road for the next couple weeks