The United States evokes many images to people across the world. The land that gave birth to Rock ‘n’ Roll with a forward thinking positive populace that generally leads the ways in terms of free speech, individual rights and unhealthy diets. It’s big, bad, mean and unforgiving but still has a place in our hearts…
Part One: Manchester – Hamburg – New York City / 4598 miles
The United States tour began rather appropriately with a show in Hamburg, Germany. Appropriately…? I hear you ask. There are more German-Americans in the USA than Irish-American or Italian-American which shows in the culinary culture of Hamburgers and Hot Dogs which now are synonymous with the States. This seemed like starting at the beginning of the story of this country. We managed to find a flight with a 24 hour change in Hamburg so we thought it would be rude not to do a show. But we left as quickly as we entered Germany though, weary and hungover (naturally) and head to the airport. The first line of USA security prods inquisitive questions in a friendly manner and comments upon the dishevelled look I was sporting on this cold Hamburg morning. He let us go without too much fuss and we board the plane after making good use of Trans-Continental duty-free.
Treated to views of Icelandic glaciers and Greenland’s barren white wilderness, the eight-hour flight soon touched down at Newark Liberty International. Fingerprint scans, retina scans and more questions proceeded. Taking an instrument to the USA is a stressful procedure for a number of reasons, but especially if you’re going to ‘work’. I get through the border without a glitch. My tour buddy James ‘Bar’ Bowen was whisked off to a room and interrogated. Three plants were put in the room with him and chatted amongst themselves looking for suspicious behaviour within him when twenty minutes later an official came in. ”What branch of the military did you serve in?” ”I’ve never been in the military?” Bar responds. After a few more peculiar questions and more about the guitar, he was soon let into the land of the free.
There was a strong encouragement for travellers to use the Express bus which was around $15 into Newark but we chose the local bus service at around $2. A cramped bus with well-worn seating pulled up bellowing out noxious fumes. The sound of Spanish tongue was spoken in all directions of the bus adding to the immediate culture shock of the USA. Squeezing off the bus we were thrown out into the throng at Newark Penn Station. A man wandering with his child collars us attempting to sell packets of nuts. Car horns were blaring as a myriad of Hip-Hop beats at intimidating levels of volume permeated through car stereos. We consciously attempt to distance ourselves with the stressful and competitive pace of life here and tentatively board our train to NYC to stop the night in a hostel. The class and race system in America became obvious as we boarded the trains and cheap buses. Generally, If you’re poor (or) black, you take the public transport. It just seemed more obvious that the UK.
Part Two: Brooklyn NY – Boston MA – Wilmington DE / 552 miles
On a bright Brooklyn afternoon we had our first show. We depart from our comfortable hostel in Queens and take the Subway to the afternoon matinée show and to meet with one of our points of contact who organised part of the tour. Jason Bennett, a Bostonian with Irish roots. Naturally! It was a five-act show of myself, James ‘Bar’ Bowen, Jason Bennett, Max Low and Qfolk. At this moment it seems appropriate to mention the purpose of the tour. It would have been nigh on impossible to cover the air fare but to cover ourselves whilst we were here was the aim. An exploratory trailblazing experience with a guitar. Two English fools in search of the ‘American Dream’. Guthrie, Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson had documented iconic travels but had they ever rode a Megabus feasting on some questionable croissants for sustenance? We had a number of shows booked with a few gaps in between for a bit of tourism. The great thing about touring tourism is not hitting those tourist hotspots crowded with families and tick-list tourists, but meeting interesting and exciting people on the ground who will take you to the nooks and crannies of a city to get the real experience.
We head to Boston for a couple of days with Jason and he proudly shows us his local pub. A pretty authentic Irish pub coupled with the fact they had staff from Dublin and Tipperary. We get accosted on the street by a friend of Jason’s, a local rapper who threw our names into a freestyle rap to which I was called the ‘N’ word several times. It went on longer than I would have wanted, about seven minutes of hearing myself being dissed (I think) and a lamentation of how many bitches I’d managed to copulate with. One thing you must allow for in America is a bit of time to be accosted by people reciting their story. It was an experience.
Well off the tourist track is our next stop in Wilmington, Delaware. We were informed this was the murder capital of the US and whilst the centre of the town was a bit sparse compared to a European city, it seemed quite nice. American city planning is something to get used to as finding fresh vegetables to cook at the flat we were staying were impossible to find. We found a few frozen pizzas in a supermarket which had aisles upon aisles of cosmetics, drugs and processed food but no vegetables. This was one of the problems we encountered as the car culture in the US is so strong, driving out-of-town to the grocery store or supermarket is commonplace whilst the central location of places can be ghostly and eerie with large-scale faceless corporate buildings.
Part Three: Wilmington DE – Philadelphia PA – Pittsburgh PA / 336 miles
Around this time in the tour we were still getting our heads around the culture of America and the difficulties it provides to touring musicians. It would be deemed farcical to walk a few blocks if you had a vehicle, of course many do but, why wouldn’t you drive when gas is a third of the price as it is in the UK? Whilst not taking a road trip to our shows wasn’t too much of a hassle, NYC subway was a surprising hindrance. The lack of maps with clear destinations made London Underground mapping a cartographer’s wank-mag. This was similar in train stations and bus terminals. Advance planning and a willingness to change course on the day is a MUST.
After leaving Wilmington, Delaware we head to Philadelphia to meet with Jacopo, singer in the band The Late Saints who are a Gypsy/Folky/Punk band. We share ideas, songs, and talk about American politics. It seemed that most people were either pro-Bernie Sanders or anti-Donald Trump. Of course, we were hanging out with musicians and people of this community but even those who weren’t as involved seemed to convey a similar message. American politics is so convoluted and complicated that a majority vote doesn’t seem to matter. How many delegates and super-delegates in each state has something to do with which way votes go. I don’t understand it. It seems clear that the system has been made so labyrinthine.
On the eight-hour Megabus to Pittsburgh it dawned on me that if Woody Guthrie was alive today, he would ride the Megabus…I think. ”This land is your land, this land is my land…with a fifty cent booking fee…” Pittsburgh is a steel town with blue-collar workers and a down to earth attitude. Like Sheffield but with more ketchup and cheese. It reminded me of being back in the North. Bryan is our man in this city and is only more than happy to reveal the hotspots of this wonderful place. One of which was a fantastic dive bar where you can smoke and have great banter in a dark atmosphere with the locals and also a great little bar that serves what we would call in the North ‘a chip butty with some meat’. Service culture is what America is famed for but not in Allentown Pittsburgh, or specifically the pizza place we stumbled upon. An interesting dynamic appeared in the place where a couple of male workers made the food quietly and competently whilst the head honcho, an old lady dished out a dismissive manner to every customer who had the misfortune of entering. Aggressive and loud, she barked at customers to repeat their order and huffed and puffed when people couldn’t read a menu quick enough. The co-workers obedient and silent. Her words were as blue as the cigarette smoke that filled the air.
Part Four: Pittsburgh PA – New York City NY – New Brunswick NJ / 407 miles
These days in Pittsburgh were comfortable and welcoming. We performed in a Black Metal coffee shop and hit a couple of open mic nights between shows where we came across some very special music. North America is an immigrant population and whilst in the UK open mic nights tend to be white male singer/songwriters, in North America, a whole plethora of styles and people brought lots of sounds and ideas to the melting pot. Like the UK, this is why the USA is known as a place where ideas and sounds collide, intermingle and create new cultures. I’m now relaxing into America, getting my head around the culture and the way public transport works and the do’s and don’t’s of the land. We say our farewell’s to Bryan and leave for NYC to go to New Brunswick, our final stop. A nine-hour Megabus awaits to NYC. Here we are treated to REAL America. I would say at least half of this journey was driving through wilderness… vast forests, farms, motels and all that is associated with rural America. Pick-up trucks with Confederate flags pass by occasionally and the only visual support for Donald Trump appears, a large sheet attached to hay bails proudly sporting ‘Farmers for Trump’.
Our show in New Brunswick was with Qfolk (who we met in Brooklyn) and we performed to an attentive audience. New Brunswick I gather gets a bit of a bad rep. Being so close to NYC and Philadelphia, it is sandwiched between two major cities and often gets forgotten about on the touring musician map so the staff at the venue were quite welcoming and so were the crowd. We have a day off the next day and then our flight the next, so we were welcomed back on our day off to perform another show at the same venue. An even better show than the previous night, unplugged in the bar area, an attentive audience at 12am with the PBR flowing (Pabst Blue Ribbon, the American version of Carling) this was a good ending to what was the most exhausting, unforgettable and demanding tour I’ve experienced.
So what makes the USA so hard to tour? As previously mentioned, a part of it was the strong car culture. Getting around by public transport wasn’t particularly tough but with a lack of signposting and information, it becomes a stressful experience. The NYC subway being the perfect example. In some ways, this was harder or on par with a Balkan or E.European tour where distance and other factors become an issue. If you’re planning to tour it with an instrument, leave all notions at the Homeland Security border office that you’re going to ‘make it’. This is the land of the free, and meaning that, you are free to do exactly what you want…provided you can pay for it. There is a very strong eating out culture and with this, rarely will you get fed at venues and you will eat out on a daily basis so you need lots of cash whilst you are there. This was one of our main expenses on the tour and something that venues/promoters could help out more with easily as some did which was very welcoming. Drinking laws affect the culture of states and whilst the East Coast tends to be relaxed and liberal, it is still a 18/21 limit so it is not as much of a strong drinking culture as Europe so rarely will you get a few free beers from the venue. I wouldn’t jump into a USA tour lightly, this has taken 8 months worth of stringent planning and looking back it is like one of those camping trips where it rained all week and you laugh about it in the future! It is fucking hard but the rewards are there. We met some amazing people who inspired and expanded our minds and we learned a lot about the USA. For any visitor though, one of those important lessons: Do not forget to tip your bartender or waiter. In NYC bar staff are on around £3.50 an hour which is taxed. Tips are also taxed and to make sure the staff get the tip without being taxed? Give it to them directly and don’t declare it on the bill. Or should I say… check? And don’t forget to ask for the bathroom…the ‘toilet’ doesn’t exist.
Here are a list of links of the great musicians we came across!
Runny (New York Punk) https://runnylove.com/ Qfolk (New Brunswick acoustic Punk) https://www.facebook.com/qfolkmusic/?fref=ts The Late Saints (Philadelphia Gypsy Punk) http://thelatesaints.com/ Bryan McQuaid (Pittsburgh Country Acoustic Punk) http://www.bryanmcquaid.com/ Johanna Chastek (Pittsburgh Classical Folk) http://www.johannachastek.com/ Disaster Commitee (Wilmington Punk Rock) https://www.facebook.com/disastercommittee/?pnref=about.overview Jason Bennett (Boston Folk Punk) https://www.facebook.com/Jason-Bennett-and-The-Resistance-27847340863/ Max Low (NYC singer/songwriter) https://www.facebook.com/MaxLowBand/?fref=ts