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Day 5: Contrast

C’est la vie say the old folks

It goes to show you never can tell!

-- Chuck Berry

On Day 5 I woke up on the bus to a rooster crow. I lingered in my hammock until dawn crept in through the giant hole in the wall, warming my side. I climbed out and walked through an orange orchard, feeling the mild chill before a hot day in the country. When I got back to the bus, Derek -- who is an actual farmer when he’s not on tour -- was up and in his element, puttering around the camping stove and gearing up for breakfast. We did last night’s dishes together, in a kitchenette attached to the goat pens. There, the woman milking recognized Derek from college, and her 2-year-old son dragged him off to the coop to see the chicken pullets.

Mornings are usually pretty nice on tour.

It's later in the day that usually sucks.

Like, for example, three hours later, when we were on the road and I told James-the-navigator that a small coalition would really like to find a bathroom really soon, and James said, “Ooh” because we had just passed the point where that would be possible without the trip taking an extra hour, because we were stuck in LA traffic and LA traffic is real. Or a few minutes after that when Pancho filled several coffee cups with urine, and Angela and I resolved to grit and hold tight for the next forty minutes before the next gas station. Or an hour after that, at a random pull-out by a random military base, when Wiley messed with the bus' wiring to let us charge electronics again, and accidentally wiped my computer's hard drive in the process, deleting everything including the blog post I was all set to publish. Or an hour after that, when we arrived in San Diego and realized that the only parking spot was bordered by a tree that didn't clear the top of bus, and Derek climbed up top to wrangle the branches, and very seriously smashed his index finger.

Or the second after that, when Derek made some comment about it being his picking hand, and I thought, “Oh shit, we have to play a show tonight.”

If you’ve read the last couple blog posts, you know that every day on tour is a complete emotional roller coaster. We wake up in the morning with a million things to do before we sleep again, but we also go through several radical context-shifts in a single day. Contrast is enough of a theme that I’ve now heard Wiley say, “It’s all about the contrast,” more times than I’d like to count. On tour, our experiences stack up against each other like the sour and the sweet layers of a warhead, or the highlights and shadows of an  Instagram filter, or a cold plunge after a hot tub, or the low-and-mournful and high-and-lonesome parts of a yodel, or the mixed hot and cold coils in this Exploratorium exhibit.

Day 5 wasn’t the single highest-contrast day, but it seems like the right time to introduce the concept. The day began on a sleepy pastoral farm, and ended in an urban center at the hippest party any of us had ever been to. 

The show that night was at the first anniversary party of Teros Gallery, tucked between the North Park and City Heights neighborhoods of San Diego. Owner Alejandra Frank named Teros in reference to a 1940s pulp scifi story by Richard Sharpe Shaver, in which the post-apocalyptic Teros race is all that’s left of “noble” humanity. True to its name, there was some nobly futuristic stuff on display by local artists, including Celeste Byers, Aaron Glasson, Hugo Fernando Fierro, Spenser Little, and Madeleine Tonzi.

By the time we had the stage constructed, it was pretty clear that this was going to be a real big, real cool party. There was even a DJ to play before and after our show, like a real venue. And unlike at most real venues, Scott Travis Johnston was the DJ and he was excellent. There were girls with shaved heads wearing lipstick, there were dudes with gauges and beards down to their bellies, and there was some really amazing art on the walls, and everyone seemed to like us unironically. The grey-haired mailman making his rounds compared us to the Partridge family. We all agreed that this was a refreshing change from the usual “sweet bus looks like Burning Man,” and that Wiley was our designated adult.

Minutes later, James was setting up my sound when a girl walked up to the stage and waved. I thought she was waving at Pancho, who was running cables behind me, but then she looked at me and said:

“Do you recognize me?”

I screamed, “JENNIFER CHIOU” and jumped off the stage to hug her.

I’d been living on a bus for five days with five other people, some of whom I’d only known for about that long but now felt like my best-and-more-relevantly-only friends, and I’d been making music every night instead of doing work every day, and I was literally and figuratively miles away from my usual context.

And then my absolute best friend from elementary school, who I hadn’t spoken with or seen in at least ten years, waltzed up to the stage and waved and asked if I recognized her.

And it absolutely blew my mind.

Once doppelgangers, now we just look like our moms.

Once doppelgangers, now we just look like our moms.

As kids, Jennifer and I were inseparable, and people had a hard time telling us apart. Now, as I've learned, our lives are pretty different. For example: she does not live on a bus.

Jennifer's been married for a few years, now. Her spouse is in the military, and they’ve moved around the country a lot, though they relatively recently bought a condo in San Diego. She had seen me Instagram about Splendor earlier that day, followed the links, and decided to come to the show that night and surprise me.

For me, sharing art with friends is a very different experience than sharing art with strangers. I don't know exactly why, but part of it is that an audience of friends has much more personal context with which to interpret my work, and their impressions are easier for me to care about (or harder for me not to care about). Playing for friends also usually feels more meaningful than playing for strangers.

I think this is one thing that makes Splendor Splendor. Even in a city where I know no one, I always have a supportive community of friends and artists watching.

James' partner Laura, James, and their friend Kate cuddling to Derek's set, Wiley working sound.

James' partner Laura, James, and their friend Kate cuddling to Derek's set, Wiley working sound.

But playing for the Splendor fam is pretty different from playing for a friend I haven’t talked to in years and who has never heard my music before.

“This song is titled ‘My Favorite Cocaine Blues,’” I faltered into the microphone, “but it's more about my relationship to songs about cocaine than it is about my relationship to cocaine itself. Which I am mostly saying because my best friend from elementary school is here and I want her to know that I haven’t picked up a drug habit in the intervening years.”

From where I sat on the stage, I saw Jennifer giggle.

Awkwardness aside, the set felt good, and Angela said it was good, too, so maybe it was. She also said that the people-on-tour-with-you-are-the-only-people-in-the-world thing is just what tour feels like. (Angela spent her summer on tour with a husband and wife folk duo, as nanny to their three children, and the six of them drove across the country in a five-seat car. So she knows what she’s talking about.)

I wasn't the only one with non-bus-friends at the show. The others also had a small posse close friends show up, their “San Diego” friends, (which everybody seemed to have except me, until Jennifer showed up and then I had one too.) James’ girlfriend and Derek's good friend from college, Laura was also there, having flown out from Nashville to join us for a leg of the tour.

I don’t know if performing for friends has the same effect on other people as it does on me. But I do know that Wiley got up and joined Pancho on stage for the first time on tour, and it was awesome. And I know that when Derek played the very sober, “Devil’s Nine Questions,” and came to the line, “What is deeper than the sea?” one of his friends shouted, “A WHALE’S VAGINA.” And I know that James played a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Teenage Wedding,” as his encore and killed it, which I had never heard him play before but Derek swears is James’ go-to karaeoke song. And I know our posse, friend-guests included, was big enough to populate a dance floor. And I know that we danced like there was no tomorrow and we’d collectively seen Pulp Fiction way too many times.

After James’ set, Scott started DJing again, and the party kept going. And it continued to be a very good party.

Pancho and Wolfgang, the morning after

Pancho and Wolfgang, the morning after

At 2 AM, Jennifer was still hanging out, helping us put the bus back together again so we could go to sleep. Scott had packed up, and a chill, drunk, freestyle-country-music-jam-circle had taken his place. Pancho grabbed the guitar and spat flow to an enthralled crowd.

It ended up being about bestiality, and it included the line, “BAM I’m inside a cow!" When it was done, one of James’ friends grabbed him and said in all seriousness: “Now I understand the Splendor.”

The Alignment Tour is over, but the blog lives on! I'll be posting backlogged stories from the road for the next couple weeks.