US tour 2014, part 3: Thunder Roll and Moonshine

We’re back in Dixie, and our first stop is Pawleys Island, South Carolina, which seems to be a place mostly devoted to golf. Barely knowing a caddy from a birdie, I feel a fraud. We stay on a swamp-moss-draped resort (a former plantation, which spooks me somewhat) whose rooms have tee-patterned wallpaper and little display cases showing the evolution of the golf ball. Our show takes place under a big tent, with the chirp of crickets accompanying us in the sultry night.

The Paramount Theatre in Goldsboro, North Carolina boasts a fine array of pageant costumes in the its green room (see below). At dawn the next day, the mighty Tom Anderson arrives to chauffeur me on the most fleeting of trips to and from SoJam, to give an hour’s worth of songwriting workshop. I find an ebullient class of 30 students full of ideas, and wish I had several more hours with them. As it is, there’s barely time on the way out to high-five a few friends and vocal heroes including live-looping queen Julia Easterlin, whose family – as chance would have it – will host us for dinner a couple of days later.

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Then Wilmington NC, a historic port town on the Cape Fear River. As usual, there’s not really time to explore, though just before the show I sneak a quick walk to and from the riverfront– old, pretty, with the merest glimmer of seediness from the windows of its shops and bars. Across the sunset-pink water sits the enormous USS North Carolina, with a Tom Sawyerish paddle-wheeler rolling by to complete the picture (below).

Thalian Hall, where we are performing, has everything I want from a venue – historic atmosphere, friendly efficiency, techies wearing kilts. Within two minutes of our arrival the staff have anticipated our every question and need; better still, they give us a tour of the attic space that houses one of the world’s only working Thunder Rolls. This arcane 19th-century sound effect is a long wooden trough that slopes from one side of the building to the other and back again, above the proscenium arch. At intervals of a few seconds, you release half a dozen iron cannonballs at the top of the run and they rumble down it as someone else spins a barrel full of dried peas to make rain and, from the stage below, Lear rages at the sky. It’s a contraption Wile E. Coyote himself would be proud of.

Getting to and from this artefact is an adventure in itself, involving a crawl through various tight spaces and a clamber up and down an rickety ladder. Afterwards, we descend a back staircase of dark polished wood that our guide tells us, a little abashedly, used to be reserved for blacks in the days of segregation. It’s a jolting reminder that for all the jetsam of the past we celebrate under the “historic” banner, there will always be grimmer shadows lurking.

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My first impression of Augusta, Georgia is the plaque outside the Methodist church where we will be playing – founded by “a young Virginia minister who denounced the worldliness of fun-loving Augusta”. I’m not sure whether to be pumped or nervous about encountering fun-loving Augusta and its detractors. With time to kill, I wander through the deserted Sunday morning streets towards the Riverwalk to find somewhere open for lunch. The Boll Weevil has one of the most monumental dessert menus I’ve ever seen, and I stuff my face with blueberry cheesecake. A waitress passes me with a huge iced cake balanced on each hand. Then comes the terrible cry: “Cake down!”

As I emerge into the intense sun, I notice I am on James Brown Blvd. The Godfather of Soul has a street named after him that leads directly to the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre. Must be something musical in the water.

IMG_2180The city has come out of church and loosened its collar as I head back to the venue. A patch of common land is given over to a Hispanic Festival whose thumping bass follows me for several blocks. Then suddenly, I hear these loud blasting chords. A big fat Fsus4. I can’t tell where the blasts are coming from, still less what they are. Car horns? Some kind of pipe organ? A John Cage happening? I’ll never know, but for a few minutes I am elevated to this dreamlike sense of grandeur.

Inside the church, we are preparing to give the congregation their first ever amplified music experience. The church has hired in not just any PA, but one with enough subwoofer power to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Probably best not to fire all cylinders. Probably also best not to describe our song Burden as a “drinking song”. It’s interesting how the song has run the gamut of interpretations even in the year we’ve been singing it. I originally intended it as a love song; now we tend to perform it in the spirit of a pub singalong. But Sara’s churchgoing mum tells me she hears it as a worship song, and that’s how we present it to the Augustans. I love the idea of songs being repurposed and changing their meaning depending on context. Case in point: the state anthem Georgia On My Mind, which could equally well be about someone named Georgia.

The folks of fun-loving Augusta seem to love our show, including our friend Jamal Moore from The Exchange. Afterwards we’re taken to a reception in the church hall with not-insubstantial nibbles AND then whisked off to a “potluck” feast at the Easterlin family home. I make myself so thoroughly at home that not I end up bouncing on the trampoline in their garden and trying to figure out how to play the harp in the living room. (Kevin and I busk our way through a bit of Satie; I immediately add harp to my wish list of impractical instruments to own some day). We’re even invited back the next day to lounge around in the hot tub and play with the dogs in the family’s absence, which we eagerly accept.

Some other parishioners have offered up their homes for us to sleep in. I’m expecting a sizeable place, but nothing can prepare me for the palatial residence we drive up to. Massive Ionic columns at the front entrance, marble floors, four-poster beds with steps up to them, ensuite baths in every room, lift, pool table, the lot. It’s the size of a luxury hotel and it’s occupied by one elderly couple – though they have 16 grandchildren and also rent out the house to corporate parties during the Masters golf tournament. One such party has left behind a bottle of Maker’s Mark, which we sip on the porch until the wee hours.

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Variations on a theme of Southern Hospitality: the joke I tell to audiences in this region is that I didn’t know what this well-worn phrase meant until it was handed to me on a plate. Truly, heart and stomach are indivisible here, and in just a few days we’re on the receiving end of more huge meals and general acts of kindness than I can count. There’s the night an audience member invites us to the beautifully furnished back room of her shop, and orders us to help ourselves to anything we see, including various legal and not-quite-so-legal varieties of moonshine, each with a shaggy dog story attached. There’s the sunny small talk with everyone from promoters to waitresses and check-in staff (the Delta agents at ATL airport do pretty good English accents, as it turns out). There’s the impossibility of leaving anywhere unladen with bags of food. If very occasionally the lavish generosity has an undertone of emotional pressure – at one venue the caterers more or less stand over us as we eat to make sure we are enjoying it – that doesn’t negate the warm and fuzzy feeling our Southern experiences leave us with. I miss the brisket and collard greens already.

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