NOLA, Austin, San Antonio, Tucson: Music and Occupations

Wow, it seems like there’s so much to document about the last week. I don’t know how to parse it all out separate entries, so it’s all going into one. Quickly, let me organize my thoughts:

1. How awesome is New Orleans?

2. San Antonio and Austin

– The Occupy movements there

– The wild thing that happened at the Austin show

3. Tucson so far

– Attending the Occupy Tucson GA

– My new song

Hey, that’s a pretty good little outline! Okay. Here we go.

(Looking back on this, the music stuff is all pretty intertwined with the Occupy stuff.  Don’t feel bad about skimming/skipping around.)

New Orleans = amazing.  I’ve enjoyed every place I’ve been on tour, truly, but I had quite high expectations for New Orleans, where I’d never been, and I was not disappointed.  Some places are harder to get your fingers into than others.  It also depends on where you stay and with whom, but I felt like I got the feel for NOLA immediately.  I loved the architecture, the worn beauty of it all.  My first night in town I had the treat of being able to see Tune-Yards (yeah, I’m not even trying to fuck with the idiosyncratic capitalization there), which also gave me the opportunity to walk two miles to and from the venue.  Despite being dead tired from a thirty-one hour train ride from New York, I loved just walking through all the neighborhoods, seeing the cute olde tyme stores and hearing lovely music pouring out of the corner clubs.  Straight up, that town is in danger of stealing my heart.  If I end up living there at some point in my life, I don’t think that’d bother me at all.

The New Orleans show at Neutral Ground was very satisfying.  There weren’t that many people there, but the room had a very nice warmth to it, and it was intimate enough to be able to go without a mic.  It was a true pleasure to play (and stay) with Mark Growden.  When I was just starting up again in 2008 and feeling very unsure of myself (despite the burning desire to be playing music), he gave me some very valuable guidance and support, so sharing a bill with him was definitely one of those moments that felt like, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  I also roped in my old Oberlin buddy Tilde Carbia to sing some songs with me, and that was terrific.  Overall, I felt very recharged by New Orleans; the Amtrak business unfortunately cast a pall somewhat over my New York visit, so while I enjoyed seeing all my old friends there I was stressing about that a lot.  New Orleans felt like a cleanse.

I left around noon one day on my way to Austin, by way of San Antonio (there’s no direct train).  I arrived in San Anton at 4 AM, with three hours to kill.  So, I looked up #occupysanantonio on the Twitter and found that they were set to begin occupying Travis Park, a little less than a mile away from the station, at 6 AM.  Fuck it, let’s walk.  I got there at 5, with no demonstrators but two news vans already there.  5:30, a few people show up, and we share stories.  A few other people get interviewed by the local TV reporters, I by Texas Public Radio.  But at 6:15, with just about a dozen folks there, I have to split.

I get into Austin at 9:30, and proceed directly to Occupy Austin, again less than a mile from the station.  It’s already going strong, probably 200 folks when I get there, 350 by the time I left three hours later.  At first I’m a little disappointed: the vibe feels a lot more like a protests I’ve been to in the past.  Instead of a little ‘village’ with people sharing knowledge, ideas, skills with each other, it’s a line for people to speak for two minutes each.  Some people are well-spoken, others not so much.  Some are on point, others are off somewhere else.  But then I check myself: if this is to be a really inclusive, egalitarian movement, all these people need to be here.  And whether it’s someplace I’m visiting or my home turf, I should both listen respectfully and share wisdom/be critical, but with kindness and compassion.  So I listened to other speakers for a bit, and then I got up on the mic.  I told them how and why I was there, and why I was growing more and more convinced that the Occupy movement was important and different than the protests I had seen in the past (short version: no end point, potential for great inclusivity, lack of demands a feature not a bug).  Then I stole away to the margins of the crowd to practice Brian Belknap‘s “Cradle to Grave”, which I wanted to learn to share with the occupations I visit for the rest of tour (If you don’t know it, go listen, it’s a profound and powerful protest anthem).  I was soon joined by a mandolin-playing underground taxi service operator named Harry and another chap on bongos whose name escapes me.  We learned the song all together, ran it a half dozen times, and then went and played it for the people.

My energy started to wane and my sunburn starting to wax after a few hours, so I was laying down in the shade, reminding myself that just being there was important, even if I wasn’t engaged in the goings-on.  I was glad to get picked up by my friend, get a shower and a nap in.  I got shown around Austin a little bit, and I dug the not-huge feeling of it, the funky neon signs and the preference for small houses over apartments.

The next day I laid low, catching up on rest and frankly hiding from the heat, which had pretty much wiped me out the day before.  The show that night was an interesting one.  My previous booking at Thunderbird Coffeeshop had been abruptly cancelled just a week earlier, leaving me to scramble for another one.  My man Jesse Moore hooked me up with one at Hole In The Wall, which was a pretty bitchin’ spot, except for the fact that when I got there they didn’t know anything about it!  No sweat Jesse, I still got to play.  Sound man was super nice about it, saying basically I could start playing at the front stage right away (this was around 8:45) and go until the first band started at 9:30 (a metal band, I was to learn).  So I did.  Okay, here’s the weird part.  I’m playing “The Tenderness In Me” near the end of the set, and during the last verse, about thirty feet from the stage, I notice someone singing along with the song!  I did not recognize this person; they were shrouded in shadow, and I had some stage lights in my face.  All I could tell was: white guy, dark curlyish hair, medium build, not too short, white shirt maybe?  So naturally after the song I ask, “Hey, who is that singing my song? How do you know this song when I don’t know you?”  He laughs, identifies himself as “White guy #1” and says, “You’re awesome,” and then he walks off into the other room.  And then, you guys!  After the set my friend and I searched the entire bar for this guy, and we couldn’t find anyone matching our impression of him!  Who was that unmasked man?  Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.  I still had two more songs in my set, which unfortunately had to compete with the band soundchecking in the other room.  So “New Song, Old Love” got some sweet metal licks over the top, which at the time was pretty distracting and annoying, but in retrospect is kind of funny.

I had a few more hours of hanging out in Austin before I caught the 1:30 Greyhound back to San Antonio for a 5:40 departure to Tucson.  Not only was this a chance to drop in on Occupy San Antonio in the wee small hours, but the park they had moved to (Hemisfair) was right on the way between the two stations.  So I spent about two hours there.  Maybe two dozen people dozed while a few others roamed around.  Some anarchists and I debated with this dude who was pushing for all the folks in the Occupy movement to be doing direct service work and volunteerism instead.  We all agreed that community service was critical and had its place, but that in no way should it completely replace protest and other ways of criticizing and challenging the power structure.  We went around and around, and to be honest it started to try my patience.  But he seemed like a well-meaning dude, not aiming to intentionally disrupt, and I tried to remind myself, ‘It’s important and good that he’s here.  Disagree vigorously, but with kindness and good faith.’  Finally I left to catch my train, on which I wrote my fourth song of the year, “Witness”, about the OWS movement.  Here’s a very rough demo of it (I thought it was important to get out there sooner rather than polishing it too much):

Tucson has been a good recharge spot.  I’ve gotten better rest here than other places, probably not least of all because I have a guest room to myself.  I went to Occupy Tucson’s General Assembly meeting on Sunday, there were maybe sixty people there?  Their occupation won’t start until after I’ve gone, but I still got to meet some good folks and tell them my story.  A lot of them seemed to want to know, ‘How are we doing?’  I reassured them that they were doing fine, and even if there weren’t the numbers they hoped for yet, it was still important and valuable that they were there.  Then I had to drop some anti-racism science on some folks.  I won’t get too into it, but they were basically like, “We don’t think we should take race or sex or anything into account in organizing, because it’s so DIVISIVE”, and I was all like, “Do you want your movement to be more diverse than it is now, or are you fine with it being so white?” and they were all, “Yeah, we WANT that, but we just don’t know how,” and I was all, “Well, my advice make it a priority.  ‘Cause it ain’t gonna happen on accident, and it’s better to address this while you’re still a small group, because the bigger you get, the bigger a problem you’ll have.”  Anyway, obviously this is an oversimplification.  And I’ll also stress that this was a conversation I had with just a few folks, not with the assembly as a whole.

I think that’s it!  I gotta go get ready for my show.  Tucson, I been waiting for this.

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