September 16, 2014

Confessions of a Jack White Junkie, part 6: To paraphrase the Beastie Boys, "NO SLEEP SINCE FARM AID!!!"

Left the house just after 8:30am for the drive to Raleigh, NC to meet Sharon and Helen for Farm Aid 2014.  The last time I headed south on 95, for a day-trip to Richmond, traffic slammed to a halt at Dumfries and crawled the rest of the way, turning a two hour trip into three.  I planned seven for this trip that Google said would take four and three-quarters. But traffic was great and within two hours I was well past Richmond. Along the way, around the time I passed Kings Dominion, I realized I was driving along with a small serene smile on my face.  This is freedom for me, this smooth, flowing locomotion, the rhythm of the road, feeling the vibration of the car and the subtlety of the movements necessary to maneuver it.  Surprisingly, even more freeing was the the idea that our plans were completely up in the air.  Normally I'd be in a tizzy over loosy-goosey plans, but fuck it, we were winging this, going by the seats of our pants and making it up as we went.  On my first road-trip to see Jack a little shy of four and a half years ago, I was on the road and fretting over finding a ticket for a show I was driving toward. This time I was trying to unload some tickets for a show I was driving toward and not concerned in the least whichever way it turned out. All part of the adventure, you know?
So as the car flowed swift and straight down the highway, my mind began to meander meditatively through thoughts of music and friendship.  These shows I go to bring the two together, after all, so it's not so unusual that both would be floating around in my brain at the same time.  I talked in the introduction to this multi-chapter tale about the friendships I've formed over the last few years through my discovery of Jack's music.  We all keep in touch as much as possible through the magic of the interwebs but since we're spread all over it's times like this, when he's on tour, that we're most easily able to come together and actually see each other.  And, again because of how we're spread out, I see different combinations of people from show to show, the groupings flow and fluctuate depending on proximity and people's ability to travel. That's what was on my mind while driving today, how the relationships between these people flow and fluctuate the same way we travel from show to show.  It's been interesting to watch over the last few years, as I've gotten to know more and more folks.  Some of them knew each other before I met them, and have been to other shows together without me.  We've met new people at new shows and they've been incorporated into the group to varying degrees.  New satellites, as it were, in the universe of compatriots with this addiction.  Others haven't been able to make it to shows on this tour yet and the trials of life have pulled them farther out to the edges of that universe where communication takes place less frequently.  I noticed a few weeks ago that my 'friend' list on Facebook had suddenly passed 80,  a heck of a milestone for someone who's been such a loner for all their life.  But I knew that number didn't represent real friends, that there was no way I'd really developed a true bond with every one of those people, so I cleaned house, unfriending more than half of that number.  The people left are the ones with whom I can pick up a conversation after we haven't talked in weeks, even a month or more, and they still make me feel like there's something between us, that even if we're not able to see each other there's still a connection worth holding onto.  And within that group that's left, it's fascinating to observe how new people fit, how alliances form, how people grow apart and yet hang together. These relationships are flexible and dynamic and I wonder what it is that has kept me bound to them these few years.  Is it just our mutual addiction that binds us, or have some of these bonds grown beyond that initial seed and flowered into something that would survive without it?  As someone who's had so few friends throughout her life, and even less that lasted this long, this is new territory for me to explore.
The thoughts about music had to do with conscience over unloading the tickets to today's show.  I'd initially been very excited about seeing both Neil Young and Willie Nelson, the show's main headliners.  I've been marginally familiar with both over the years, through the music my parents listened to, but never thought of listening to them on my own.  Then both of them went and got involved in projects with Third Man Records within the last year and made me realize I'd made a mistake in not giving them my attention sooner.  This show would be a terrific opportunity to experience them live, along with Jack, so how could I pass it up, even at $200 a ticket?  But as the show approached and we began making plans to meet for it, we suddenly realized we'd created a logistical dilemma.  Before the Farm Aid show had been announced, Sharon and I had already committed ourselves to two shows in Maryland and Ohio, and the three were scheduled three days in a row.  They weren't terribly far apart in distance, but far enough that it threw a monkey wrench into our usual modus operandi.  So we talked about bailing out and selling our tickets.  I looked at the secondary market and saw hundreds of tickets already available for Farm Aid. Could we even sell them?  And, heavens above, what was I doing thinking of skipping out on an opportunity to see not only Jack (forgive me, for I have sinned...), but two legendary artists that I'd recently been exposed to by him (probably an even bigger sin in his mind)?  So on the one hand, I was in a bit of a quandary.  On the other, my addiction, my need to see him up close when I see him, was pulling at its chains and snarling at me that these seats at Farm Aid weren't close and I would be a fool to risk losing my spot on the rail in Maryland by sticking around to see Willie and Neil.  By the day before the show no serious offers for our tickets had come to fruition, so it was decided that Sharon and I would go ahead and meet Helen in North Carolina, but then leave as soon as possible after Jack's set.  I felt guilt over letting the addiction get in the way of paying respect to two musicians that I really wanted to experience, whom I could potentially really dive into after seeing them live, but I shoved thoughts of both guilt and addiction aside and when Saturday morning arrived focused on nothing but the pleasure of being on the road, come what may.  Then, of course, along the road I got three text messages from people who were interested in our tickets.
There's not much to say about the show itself because Jack's set, the last before the four headliners, was only 45 minutes. But he obviously crafted his set for this show with more thought than he seemingly usually does, because he played an assortment of songs that would appeal to a somewhat mellow, somewhat folky/country-oriented crowd, contrasted with a handful of his very heavy-toned staples. Before his set began, the women next to us must have heard us talking about him because they asked what they should expect.  The main thing we told them was that he would be unlike anyone else playing that day.  I caught sight of them out of the corner of my eye a few times while he was on-stage and got the feeling that they were both impressed and taken aback at the same time.  They bopped along to songs like Hotel Yorba and You Know That I Know, then stood stock-still staring at the nearby Jumbotron screen during crushers like Cannon, Lazaretto, and Ball and Biscuit.  I could tell there were also a few more fans besides us in the rows ahead, but the biggest crowd response, unsurprisingly, was reserved for the sports-stadium chant, Seven Nation Army.

Photo courtesy of David James Swanson.  Sharon and I were convinced he saw us in this moment through the large gap in the crowd created by folks either sitting down or not in their seats at all for his set. The lawn was packed, but the pavilion...  not so much. 
Think people were waiting for the main headliners.
After his set, we spent some time walking the concourse of the amphitheater and catching up with Helen, then hit the road back up through North Carolina and Virginia to Maryland, caravan-style.  It was very weird to set up our chairs at the gates of a venue in the woods, with no seagulls, no homeless people, and no Sam, our buddy of the previous two trips.  But instead of Sam at this show, we had our buddy Dan, the man who literally got us up on-stage in Detroit.  And we were in Maryland, practically in my backyard, in my stomping grounds, half an hour from my home but in this situation I didn't see home beyond a quick stop for a shower.  We were in tour mode and the venue was to be our home for this day and night.  

At this point, I've come to the conclusion that there's no such thing as a bad Jack White show. But, honestly, this one was as memorable for the people as for the music.  We laughed so much together throughout the day that my face hurt by the time the show began.  And then we got a taste of what was in store when Jack's tour manager stepped out from behind the blue velvet curtains to deliver the post-show "no cell phones" injunction-- He was greeted with a roaring cheer that probably shook the venerable rafters of Merriweather Post.  If the tour manager got that response, what was Jack going to get?  D.C. and Baltimore love him and I was so gratified that my hometown(s) greeted him with the same warm, raucous welcome this night that they have in the past.  Jack was grinning ear-to-ear almost immediately, and while he gave us treats such as I Think I Smell A Rat and I Fought Piranhas, and teases of Another Way to Die and Bound to Pack It Up, this show was mostly notable just for the overwhelming overall energy of it.  EN-ER-GY.  The crowd poured it into him and he whipped it up and threw it back out to ripple through us in a crackling circuit.  Afterward, as those ripples slowly dissipated, Sharon and I again spent some time with our friends, comparing notes about the show and saying goodbyes, then left exhausted but so very high.

Photo again courtesy of David James Swanson, as are all show photos.  Staring down the camera man in front of him, not the crowd.
Would have loved to have seen what that looked like on the screens next to the stage.

Ascending the curves of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the wee hours of the morning, amped on 10 hours worth of 5-hour energy, I had to keep reminding myself to slow down because Sharon was following.   Unfortunately, it was a small window of being amped, as the energy shots took two hours to kick in then began to wear off again after one, after which a weird out-of-body feeling and double-vision began to set in.  I hadn't slept in 44 hours at that point and, as we'd made no specific plan beyond getting from venue to venue, had no idea when I would get any again.  We pulled in for a gas stop at one point and I think we saw the same goggle-eyed expression on each other's face as we got out of our cars.  But we made it to Cleveland and tried to catch a few winks before many more folks showed up for the line along the dock outside of Jacobs Pavilion.  I think winks were all I got, though. There's a state you can get into that's not quite awake but not quite asleep, where you're not fully conscious but are still aware of sounds and movement going on around you.  That's the closest I got to sleep that morning. 
Photo courtesy of Sharon Harrow. That's me in the sleeping bag to the left of the blankets.
Early in the day, one of the security guys who was going to be working the front of the stage that night came over to check out the line, presumably to see what sort of people he'd be spending his evening with (Eddie, man, you're the greatest, wish you'd been closer when I needed you).  Like the two women at Farm Aid, he wasn't familiar with Jack and asked us what he should expect, so we told him a bit about Jack's music and the whole no setlist/every show is different thing, and he mentioned looking forward to seeing Jack's gear (I told him to be sure to check out the vintage acoustic Army-Navy guitar, created by Gibson for soldiers heading off to WW II.  Jack's is beat to hell and back, but it's wonderfully warm sounding and you can tell just by looking at it that it's got many stories in it).  He left after a while to see what was going on inside the venue, then came back later to let us know that the tech guys had asked if he'd seen a blonde woman with glasses and a dark-haired woman in the line.  He got a big chuckle out of them wanting to know if we were there.
Like Merriweather, Cleveland turned out to be a show as memorable, or more so, for the crowd as for the music, but for very different reasons.  One of the things that has impressed me again and again over the last four years is how cool the crowds are at Jack's shows.  Cleveland was my 30th of his shows and it was the first at which I experienced uncontrollable asshole-ishness.  I knew right off the bat that this crowd was going to be a problem because they were pushing up against us before the show even began. So I went into preemptive mode and began chatting up the folks immediately behind us, figuring that we'd form an alliance and look out for each other during the show.  One of them was a teenage boy there by himself, practically vibrating with excitement because it was his first Jack White show and he couldn't believe he was so close to the stage.  I was really looking forward to his response after everything was over.

But sure enough, as soon as Jack hit the stage assholes started shoving up between the two women behind me and pushing everyone around. The young kid who was seeing Jack for the first time disappeared entirely within a few songs. I was able to keep my space, but Sharon felt like she was back at Vancouver all over again, where the crowd was so rough she had her face smashed against the barrier.  This bunch wasn't quite that violent, but it was clear that there were many there who didn't give a rat's ass about the people around them.  

At one point during the second set, I motioned security over about a woman who'd squeezed up from the back and was shoving everyone around (she didn't get pulled out, only told to "settle down") and when I looked back up at the stage as the next song began, Jack was staring right at me. He kept eye contact for several seconds and I just stared right back.  I would hate to play cards against that man because he's got a stare as unreadable as an un-graffiti'd concrete wall.  I've no idea what he was thinking, but anyone who's been keeping up with my tales from this tour can probably guess the neurotic direction the roller-coaster took my thoughts in--  Had I annoyed him by causing a commotion? But I stifled my paranoia because other than that he was full of smiles throughout the show, grinning like a little kid over and over again (and combing back what's left of his hair over and over again).  So despite the crowd, it was a really terrific evening. More of a blur than usual since I spent so much of it fighting to keep people off of myself and Sharon (I've found in looking at that I completely missed Black Math, one of my favorites of his live, while I was struggling with the woman that security didn't remove), but it looked like Jack and the band were having a great time and their enthusiasm was infectious, so I had a great time, too. Will probably not ever go back to a show in Cleveland again, but otherwise a great time.  
After waiting for the parking lot to clear out, Sharon and I hit the road again, but this time in opposite directions.  I stopped at a Holiday Inn along the Ohio Turnpike, grabbed an order of spaghetti and meatballs to go from the Denny's next door, then back in my room I set my meal down on the desk, lay across the bed, and became unconscious for the next six hours.  Cold spaghetti and meatballs is a surprisingly tasty breakfast.

And here I am having flashbacks to the drive home from the Pittsburgh/Detroit trip, sitting in one of the same rest areas I stopped in along that drive, scribbling frantically before I lose all the words that came together in my head while driving.  But the skies are clear over Pennsylvania as I write this and parts of the turnpike are as well, so I've got to get on the road again soon.  To be continued tomorrow in Boston, with a much bigger bunch of friends...

For those folks just now tuning in, this is where it all began-- Introduction.

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