On my first night with the Fred Eaglesmith Route 66 (Chicago to Santa Monica in 18 days) tour, I was standing by my record table when out of the shadows at my left emerged a grey figure in a black felt stovepipe hat and circus clown accessories. "Just wanted to say thanks for doing this," he said quietly, then went back to the shadows. "Who was that," I said to my record seller, "the mighty Oz?" It was Fred Eaglesmith.
You didn't see much of Fred during the tour, other than his 60 nightly minutes onstage. Daytimes featured tightly scheduled stops at cute sites along the route, like Paul Bunyan statues and auto exhibits and soul food shacks. Following Fred's bus, which also bore his band and warm-up acts and ran on vegetable oil which they replenished with daily stops in back of Chinese restaurants, was a second bus, full of Eaglesmith diehards ("Fredheads"), largely elderly and infirm, people of many nations who had coughed up $4000, and who spent the off-bus hours of their days at the cute sites and their nights at the shows. I had missed out on Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, and this would have to do.
When the tour manager asked me about playing a couple of the dates (various minor attractions such as myself were staggered over the length of the run to whip up local sentiment and keep the diehards awake) she asked if I would be riding the vegetable-oil bus or driving myself, and if I would be enjoying any of the daytime stops with the fans. I decided to drive myself after a little deliberation, and during the pleasant afternoon drives, alone in my Toyota en route from Chicago to Bloomington, Bloomington to Springfield, Springfield to St. Louis, I felt really happy with the choice. Driving, being alone, and listening to music are three of my favorite things, and when there's performance and sociality slotted into the nights, an afternoon of duty-free reflection is a perfect counterpoint. I had a lot of Hank Williams music to learn for my upcoming Monday show, and I had also bought new or newish music by Bob Dylan, Mia Doi Todd, and Eleanor Friedberger.
Most of the scheduled stops didn't interest me much -- and I was a bit skittish about the second-bus vibe during these interludes; would Fred and the others be mingling with these hardy folk at the 1/4 scale model Hubble telescope (spelled "Hubbell," as in Web, in the tour rundown -- maybe you can see all the way to the end of your prison sentence) and the teepee curios of Tucumcari? No, they wouldn't. I joined the gang for the Abraham Lincoln Home tour in Springfield, one site I was interested in, and found myself the only performer in attendance. For all of the many times I've been in Springfield, including the Saturday before this one, I had never wandered a block off 8th Street into the 2-block area that immerses the visitor into a pretty recreation of a mid-19th-century midwestern environs. The tour was light on Lincolniana, heavy on reminders of how fortunate we were not to be living in the mid-19th-century midwest.
The second-bus people were pretty mellow and good-humored. One fellow I talked to was from near Vancouver. He spent what was left of his life after seeing Fred Eaglesmith shows following the Pogues around the globe. Talking about my flatpick soloing at the Bloomington show, he said something that I thought was hilarious. "You do know," he said gravely, "that you don't need to use every note on every song." Good advice, wittily stated. I repeated his words at the show that evening, with the gentleman seated before me. "Feel free to offer criticism to the performers," I said. "We welcome the advice of people who don't play music. And the nice thing about the Route 66 tour is that you may see criticism offered on one day put into effect by the artist the very next!" This joke touched on a non-joke aspect of the tour set-up that I liked, which was that you could extend "call-backs" -- laugh-getting references to premises laid or remarks made earlier -- well beyond the length of a single show, across whole days. The half of the nightly crowds that weren't caravanning were non-plussed by the constant in-references at the shows, but the we're-all-trapped-here-together collegiality fostered by the tour made such banter irresistible.
Speaking of alleged comedy, I can never get over how fucking funny Fred is on stage. He is, when he's not singing, the funniest singer I've ever seen, by a good margin. At the St. Louis show, sandwiched in between the funny Jon Langford and the funny-enough-to-get-out-of-music Fred Eaglesmith, I was actually cowed into a semi-calculated unfunniness. (Yes, if you were there: that's what it was.) When most singers get laughs at a show, it's because they did something sort of human, or clearly off-script, like when I saw Hank Snow in the 1970s at the Opry and he muttered "My nose keeps dripping," or when Jonathan Richman sputtered, "This is a new shirt!" A few sharp wits make it intact across the footlight barrier -- someone as smart and funny as Leo Kottke or Peter Himmelman would need electroshock to stop being so amusing. In general, though, it's not clear whether or not it benefits music performers to crack wise between tunes. Actually, looking at my own career, I'm going to go ahead and say: no, it doesn't. Just as no one wants a brain surgeon with a squirting-flower lapel, the performer who alternates thoughtful, fear- and fantasy-probing music with japes about fast food is going to meet a thorny fate.
I think Fred only gets it done because there's a thread of comic belligerence that connects his music with his commentary. Also, in contrast to most musicians, who tend as mere humans to let a little tiredness or roteness into their recitations, Fred's delivery is so good that the fact that the material has been prepared and polished and used many times, as the economy and focus of the language make clear that it has been, is inconsequential. Fred's bit on Paul McCartney travelling to northern Canada to stage a protest against seal hunting is prologued with a bit for American audiences on the U.S.'s fondness for hunting and killing everything ("including each other!"), then wall-mounting the slain heads. Then a sidelight on a recent meal he had at a vegetarian place where heads of Swiss chard were mounted near his table. Then he pivots to Canadians, who enjoy the sport of killing one kind of animal, and Sir Paul, who enjoys "one hundred and fifty dollars a minute from Hey Jude royalties. You know how much those Canadian seal hunters make in a year? Seven thousand dollars. Don't you think if you were Paul Fucking McCartney, you might think of a different approach on this issue? How about: 'Here's eight thousand dollars. Take the year off!'"
I'm sure this translates clunkily to the printed page, but my point is that Fred's premise-planting, particulars, scene settings, pivots, pauses, dynamics (including bursts of angry shouting), self-presentation, careful balance of plays to and provocations against the moral imagination and prejudices of the crowd, etc., are absolutely in a league with the best professional stand-ups. He's got pretty good balls, too. I saw him do something in St. Louis that impressed and startled me. He was starting to rap to the audience, and alongside the bar two guys were talking to each other at -- not a high volume, but loud enough to be heard by most of the room and at a level competitive with Fred. He suddenly and ferociously wheeled on the two men and shouted: "Hey, shut the fuck up, how do you like that?"
The crowd laughed, a bit, but the two men didn't. They were mid-forties and well-built, one shaved bald and the other wearing a cowboy hat. Whether they were stunned, abashed, or mad was impossible to tell, but it didn't look likely they were fans of Fred's, because their expression definitely did not say, "Aw, that Fred, that's what he does." Anyway, there was the premise -- Fred doesn't like being talked over. A couple songs later an overenthusiastic second-bus guy talked back to Fred's routine, agreeing with something or other, and Fred shouted at him, too. "Hey! This is called a MONOLOGUE. I've been doing this for 30 years without your help." Incredibly, a song later, the two at the bar had returned to their loud conversation. This time Fred suggested amicably, "What if you two just talked during the songs?" The creativity of that evidently spontaneous line dropped my jaw.
I started thinking about other approaches to this I'd seen through the years. Memorably, when I was 22, I was doing a series of shows with the folksinger Bob Gibson at a Chicago club he had running for awhile. Same deal, a pair of excited oblivious persons in a room of library-quiet spectators. Bob had a prepared routine that was somber, rational, basically respectful of the rude people, and effective -- they left. He touched on all the obvious points, about the ground rules of performance in a listening room, the desire of everyone else to hear a show as proven by their paid attendance and non-verbal postures, and the easy availability of places in the world where you can talk loudly. But that was a raised-pinky upscale folkie joint, and the Off Broadway in St. Louis is a neighborhood bar. I wasn't sure if Fred was really demanding quiet attention from the two dudes, or using them to get a laugh, but from their mortified faces they were taking him at his word. It is pretty horrifying for most people, getting singled out of a crowd for negative attention by an elevated person with a mike.
But amazingly, notwithstanding that, they soon returned to talking loudly! A few songs on, there they were at it. Now Fred wheeled on them once again, and went with volume and violence. He acted out a spray of automatic gunfire, with a "cak-cak-cak" right on the grill of the mike. "Wouldn't that be great, just take them out?" he said to the second-bussers. Then he acted a thoughtful post-tragedy one-sided conversation. "Remember when people used to talk at shows, remember that? I mean, they'd talk right to one another! In the middle of a performance! Yeah. Back before...everything changed."
Well now. I heard, from John Novotny, how close he got to being badly mauled by an inflamed mob of Navy men in Gray's Lake after he repeatedly called them cowards and homosexuals during his routine. I've done ill-advisedly going-too-far bits, like the one about the big penises of black people for the family afternoon crowd at Gerdes Folk City, back in 1982. Let's not even get into that. And I've read about or watched on TV as Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks or Gilbert Gottfried, or whoever, crossed the dreaded "line." But I do think that this display of personalized profane yelling and richly imagined mock slaughter was the ballsiest piece of comedic performance I've witnessed, in a long time or maybe ever. I couldn't stop looking at how muscular and mad those two looked. After the show I was standing by the bar talking to Fred, and the two came up to him, and I tensed as they tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey," the cowboy hat said. "Just wanted to say, we're so sorry. We just didn't know we were being so loud, and..."
"Hey, no, forget about it," Fred said mollifyingly. "It was part of the show, no big deal at all."
"Yeah, but," said the guy. And he couldn't stop apologizing, no matter how Fred smiled and patted his back and insisted that, no, he hadn't seriously gotten mad and fantasized about his and his friend's tortuous and crowd-pleasing demise. It went on for two minutes between them. I thought I was getting a profound showbiz lesson here, but I couldn't figure out what it was. "People are sheep, so say anything that enters your mind when you're on stage, no matter how nasty or defamatory" was not the lesson. But I think when you're as skilled as Fred, and when you are Fred, you can just about do that.
"Show business savvy" was the main thing I took from the Eaglesmith outing. These people -- Fred, his managerial support, band, and support acts -- were all about taking their music and translating it into show, and keeping well astride of every aspect of business that related to the show and would let it continue. No wide-eyed arty talk among this seal-butchering bunch. Most of Fred's backing band were beautiful young women, who were not dressed in burqas. While on stage, their physicality always expressed awareness of being watched, and you'd usually see the ones who weren't singers -- weren't miked -- singing along with Fred's lyrics and smiling genuinely. When have you seen that? That impressed me a ton. When the "girls" got off stage, their demeanor changed at once. They morphed from showgirls to day laborers, no-nonsense and task-focused. The drummer made a beeline to the merchandise table and began her job of not negotiating bulk rates with drunk people. (When I gave her my discs and records to count in and display and she learned how much I wanted for them, she was disapproving; her tongue or her eyes, I don't remember which, said, "Don't be ridiculous, don't be self-defeatingly humble. Obviously we're worth far more than that." So up my price went!) Tiff and her husband Bill, who performed each night ahead of Fred, went back to the bus and did parental stuff with their 3-year-old and practical-but-disgusting stuff with vegetable oil. A couple Canadian guys who were on the artist bus but hadn't performed on the tour yet just hung around, watching the others play and being useful in any way they could. People think, I guess, of "Madonna" and "Kenny Chesney" as business terms more than "Fred Eaglesmith," but in terms of applied intelligence, determination, intergroup loyalty, and working to scale, this business functioned every bit as productively, and, given its quirks and size, seemed more admirable to me.
A final word about this striking combo of business and family mentality: it brooked no blatant egoism. The musicians and artists were unfailingly down-to-earth and friendly to me offstage, and there was less attitude than in any other artistic group endeavor I can recall. One night I saw Tiff growl and purr and preen through her set in a ripping white bodice, selling herself like Mata Hari, and the next afternoon I saw her between soundcheck and doors in St. Louis, frowning and hammering on something near the merch table. I didn't recognize her at first, and then I did and said hi, and she said, "Oh, hi." I started telling her how I enjoyed her set the night before -- sort of an automatic gesture in these circumstances, but no less sincere -- but she didn't seem especially interested in hearing all that, since she had something to hammer. This little encounter was unique in the long annals of my dealings with female singers. No Pro Forma Compliments, Please, I'm Hammering! No one on this tour threw their specialness in your face, the way performers are always doing. Everyone was so crazy normal. Hey Fred, whenever and wherever you need me next -- I'm in.