Saturday, April 14, 2007

March tour…post factum

Hey y'all,

Thanks for checking in on the Sweetback machine. We've had a busy, busy month full of dress shopping, driving, tie shopping, singing, more driving, blog creating (yippee!), and a healthy dose of worrying about a certain radio appearance (more on that later!).

I want to fill you in on some of our adventures on the first annual Sweetback March Madness Tour, which drew to a close in Burlington, VT not 2 weeks ago (We miss you, SMMT!). We kicked off the tour with a Herculean feat of van-packing: 2 fiddles, 1 telecaster, 1 lap steel, 1 'coustic, 1 baritone ukulele, 1 upright bass, 5 suitcases, 1 guitar amp, 1 garment bag with the all-important matching dresses, 2 pairs of cowboy boots, 4 cups of strong coffee and 5 scruffy musicians in 1 Toyota Sienna minivan. Whew! It should be noted that after we had driven the eight hours to Oberlin, Ohio from New York City with Ross pinned between the body of the bass and the back seat ("No. It's not that we won't...we just CAN'T let you out to pee, Thunder!") Zara said, "We TOTALLY could have fit more stuff in there!" Ever the optimist, our Zara.

Our sojourn in Oberlin was full of good things: meatballs, thrift stores, $4 cocktails (Goodbye, NYC! Hello, Midwestern College Town!), and a rockin' tour kickoff concert at Oberlin's Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse. We loved the Cat’s gigantic and delicious cookies (even the vegan ones… they’re magicians, I tell you!). We hadn't really played together in a few months, but once through Leather Britches was all it took to jog our collective memory and the show was a blast.

We bad Oberlin a fond farewell on Thursday morning. Luckily, we had picked up Stefan AND his Grand Marquis in Oberlin, so the drive out of town was infinitely more spacious than the drive in. The next stop was Cincinnati, where our dear friends the Tarbells had arranged not one, but TWO concerts for us. The first was at Arnold’s, one of the Queen City’s oldest watering holes. The stage was built to look like the porch of an old western saloon—very classy! And we got free draughts of locally brewed beer to loosen up our fingers and vocal chords. Queen City Show #2 was at Kaldi’s Coffeehouse in the Over-the-Rhine district. Highlights for me were getting to debut my favorite George Jones song, Tennessee Whiskey, and drinking shots of the same with Zara before our best ever rendition of I’ve Forgotten More.

The thing that struck me most about Cincinnati was its elegant architecture. Beautiful facades with intricately carved windowsills and colorful trim on buildings that seem impossibly narrow and tall. The old Ohio-River-trading-town grandeur shines through even with the Kroger corporate headquarters looming large in the center of town. We were thrilled to stay in a one such elegant Cincinnati house with the most elegant of Cincinnati families, the Tarbells. I don’t know if I can ever settle for less than 14-foot ceilings again.

The “Double A” highway led us eastward to Elkins, WV. The second half of that drive was particularly nice, after we had hit up a Flying J rest stop (somewhere in Kentucky) and loaded up on Ale-8-1 and Girl Scout Cookies. Luckily for me, the rest of the band is hooked on Samoas while I prefer the simple grace of Thin Mints—let them have their silly coconut!

Elkins is pretty much the cultural and political hub of central West Virginia. It houses a federal courthouse, Davis & Elkins College (which, in turn, houses the Augusta Heritage Center) and, most importantly for these chronicles, the best (only?) Venezuelan restaurant in West Virginia. Not only does El Gran Sabor have great food (try their beef cachapa or their pork empanada if you’re ever in town), but it hosts live music every Wednesday and Friday night. That night we were competing with the West Virginia Symphony (playing at the College) and a seven-piece Slovenian-style polka band called the Grkman Family (playing at the Arts Center) and still drew a great crowd. All that in a town of 7,000!

[Cue drum roll for the entrance of our hero, Caleb Stine] While we were in Elkins, I got an email from Caleb saying that our Baltimore venue, Dangerously Delicious Pies, had received a noise complaint and couldn’t have the show. “Disaster!” cried I. But as I continued to read, I saw that Caleb had ALREADY found us another venue. [You may be asking yourself, “Can this guy be for real?” Yes! He is. And you can listen to his music at]. So we recalibrated our foolproof GPS system (that’s me and my 2005 Wal-Mart Road Atlas) and headed off for The Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

It was the first beautiful Sunday of the year and the Inner Harbor was chock-o-block full of tourists. We really had no choice but to pull out our instruments and busk for an hour. We were half-heartedly chewed out by the owners of a couple of stores, but they came out to listen for a while in the end. I like to think we won them over with our feminine charms and siren-like voices. Jesse played by himself down the street and made almost as much money as the rest of us combined. The show at The Waterfront Hotel was quite fun. The headlining acts for the night were two local singer-songwriters, Andy Grimm and Ellen Cherry. We played a short but mighty set at the end of the night, wrapping up with two encores. The proverbial cherry on top of the whole night was that the owner of Dangerously Delicious Pies was so chagrined that our show had been cancelled that he brought us a big lemony reconciliation pie. We forgive anyone who showers us with sweets. And we love Caleb Stine. ‘Nuf said.

From there, we drove a few short hours “home” to New York. The next night, we played our first (?!?) full-band show in Manhattan (at the Baggot Inn). We’ve played many times in Brooklyn; Zara and I have done duet shows in Manhattan; but we had never before played a 6-piece show on that island. And what a show it was! Ben Sigelman and Jesse did their ever-wonderful cello/fiddle/guitar/banjo duo act to open. Ben raised the bar even higher this time by inviting two-time international women’s whistling champion Emily Eagen to join him for a couple of numbers. Only Emily can command the attention of a bar full of noisy drunks with controlled airflow through pursed lips. We had a blast during our set, too. Zara, Ethan and I were reunited on You Done Me Wrong.

Somehow, between our Baltimore (Sunday) and NYC shows (Tuesday), Zara and Stefan pulled strings and booked us a Wednesday (!) gig at the beautiful new home of the New England Youth Theater in Brattleboro, Vermont. Luckily we have Peter Amidon, the most well-connected man in Southern Vermont, on our side. He sent emails out to most of the population of Windham County, who then forwarded that information on to the rest. And the NEYT folks were just as nice and accommodating. They put our name out on their marquis. They enlisted students to serve coffee and brownies during intermission. They gave us use of their huge green room (check out the slideshow on our MySpace page for pictures!). So we held our breath, crossed our fingers and hoped that some people would show up! And show up they did. We had a wonderful crowd who laughed at all our jokes and danced cheek-to-cheek and clapped loudly. I love Brattleboro!

The final stop on the Sweetback Sisters March Madness Tour was Club Metronome in Burlington, Vermont. Our slap-a-licious bass player Joseph Dejarnette spends most of the year playing with The WIYOS, a vaudevillian ragtime un-jug band. You should definitely go hear them if they come to your town. They put on a jaw-dropping, thigh-slapping good show. Anyway, they were booked at Club Metronome and I finagled us an opening set. Also on the bill for the evening were the Powder Kegs and May Fly. We spent the pre-show afternoon like most good Burlington tourists—drinking coffee, scouring vintage clothing stores, wandering up and down Church Street. Zara and I found beautiful 1940s style dresses complete with little hip flaps and matching shrugs. And exorbitant price tags. Mm mmm. I’m still mourning the loss of those dresses.

The 4-act show started at 9:30pm. Club Metronome is neither for the weak of spirit nor the early risers. I guess college towns don’t attract people in either of those categories. Anyway, our friends Katie Trautz and Julia Wayne of May Fly kicked off the night with some great fiddle tunes and old-time songs. Then we took the stage for a set of the Sweetback Sisters greatest hits. The club was long on floor space and short on chairs, so people kind of stood in front of the stage and, after a while, the standing naturally morphed into dancing. We’ll have to remember that trick for later—don’t let the audience sit down! The WIYOS stole the show with their washboard antics and songs full of thinly veiled allusions to sex and hard living. And the Powder Kegs finished off the evening with an eclectic mix of music (didn’t I hear a Rolling Stones song in there?) that had the whole place gyrating.

And with that, the Sweetback Sisters and Brothers went their separate ways. Thanks for keeping updated on our antics. You can check in on our Calendar page to see if we’re coming to your town. If nothing’s on the books yet, let us know of someplace we could play near you!

Keep on honky-tonkin!

Emily and the gang


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