Peace Love and Music
Johnny and I are driving across Indiana in the snow. We started in Iowa and it's been snowing on us all day, and all day yesterday too. We just passed a frosted fiberglass ear of corn as long as a bus.
Last night we played Byron's Bar in Pomeroy, Iowa. A week ago, my friend Bruce called to warn me about Byron's. He had booked the gig. "You're going to think you've gone to the wrong place. Just trust me."
On the way there, we stopped in West Bend at the Grotto of the Redemption. A couple we stayed with in Minnesota had told us about it, only it was hard to describe. We just had to see it.
The Grotto is a series of man-made above-ground caves containing Biblical scenes. There is a long outdoor row of Stations of the Cross. Every inch of every wall and feature is made of beautiful stones: rose quartz, petrified wood, geodes, conch and mother of pearl. There are rosettes and mosaics everywhere you look. There are statues of biblical characters imported from Italy. It's as mind-bending as anything I've ever seen. Hard to describe. You just have to see it.
I did snap a picture of Charlie Muench, who joined us to play bass on this tour, walking out through the arch at the end of the Stations of the Cross. It's our Official Instagram Monday Report photo.
Snow drifted into the gem-studded caves. The freezing wind burned our faces. We were told we should come back during nicer weather but I thought it added to the beauty and strangeness of the place. What does God care about the weather?
With this dragon's hoard of geological and evangelical wonders dancing in our minds, we drove through the snowy corn-stubbled backfields of northern Iowa, up to a white metal door beneath a sign that said "Byron's Bar." A hippie bear danced around the words. The sign was faded and the building had an abandoned air. There was no neon. No OPEN sign.
Charlie walked in and came back out to wave us in. Inside was a dimly lit bar with hundreds of posters taped to the ceiling. A tie-dyed backdrop hung over the back wall behind the stage. Byron greeted us in overalls and a tie-dyed shirt. A couple of friendly guys helped us lug our things in. We splattered the carpet by the front door with fresh snow from our boots. The walls were hung with glossy black and whites of musicians who had played there, beer signs, and folk art. The Grotto of the Declivity. It was 3pm and there were a few people there despite the accumulating snow. The wifi password included the number "420."
There wasn't a real PA. Just one of those Bose towers with four inputs and no monitors. Charlie found a woofer behind the tie-dyed curtain and plugged into it. Johnny and I ran our amps hot and plugged a single vocal mic into the tower. It was impossible to know what it sounded like in the bar, but the few who were there seemed to appreciate our soundcheck and settled in to watch and listen.
Byron made a little pizza for Johnny. The show was supposed to start at 5. I had a bag of chips and a sarsaparilla. We met John, the man who owned the inn where we were staying after the show. He said he'd feed us a real dinner later. We met Harlan, a friendly regular in a flannel. Robin and Jo behind the bar. Most of the fifteen or so people knew each other and seemed happy to be there. A man bought two cans of Coke at the bar and sat down in front by himself to drink them and watch the show.
They loved the show and let us know. People hollered for lyrics they liked. A couple got up and danced by the stage, the man in his bare feet. More people showed up, dragging the snow in as the night went on. I sold about four hundred dollars worth of CDs and t-shirts. I wouldn't have guessed there was that much money in the whole bar.
Byron got up during the set breaks and raffled off a six-piece wire brush set. A couple of bamboo backscratchers. A three way extension plug. When their winning tickets were called, people shouted and ran up to collect their dollar store prizes. These people knew how to make fun. Byron seemed to me more and more like a saint surrounded by his acolytes.
I mean look at Pomeroy, Iowa on a map. If I'd thrown a dart looking for gigs and it landed on Byron's Bar, I might have checked to see if anyone was looking and thrown it again. This old hippie had gathered all the weirdos, peaceniks, partiers, and music lovers from an hour's radius of cornfields and offered a place where they could be themselves. It was impossible to be weirder or cooler than Byron, so you might as well let it all hang out.
Byron asked me to sign a poster. Then he gave me a framed poster signed by everyone who had been in the bar. Our host John bought one of everything I had. The guys helped us load the van.
The inn was a forty-five minute drive, still snowing as we followed John west from Pomeroy to Storm Lake. When we got there, John's assistant Carla had set the table with bean soup, cornbread, and saucers of fresh fruit. On the stove, there was chicken with quinoa and more chicken in a jambalaya. Green beans with tomatoes. Everything tasted like home. I had double helpings of everything.
We fluffled across the snowy parking lot to our rooms. The snow was still falling as we went to bed. "If you decide not to leave tomorrow, just stay here. I won't sell out anyway." We had planned to leave at 4am. I checked the weather and decided we'd better wait and try to leave at 6.
That's what put me in this van. We did leave at 6am. We dropped Charlie off at Chicago Midway airport and he flew home to Philadelphia. We're almost to Ohio now and it's still snowing but please don't apologize for the weather. The Midwest looks pretty in the snow. The stubbled fields. The ash trees and spruce windbreaks around the farmhouses. Black crows like pips on a domino.
Thanks to the Aster in Minneapolis, the Jackson Center for the Arts in Jackson, The BARC Auditorium in Windom, and Byron's Bar for a weird and wonderful tour. I wish I had time to type all about it but it's my turn to drive.
On our way up to Chicago, we stopped in Dayton and found Taqueria Garcia Mobil, an authentic taco truck with the freshest, flakiest tortillas I've had in a while. Ghostlight coffee just a few blocks away made a perfect espresso for the rest of our day's ride.
We picked up Charlie in Chicago and dropped our stuff off at Freehand, a funky downtown hotel with bunk beds. Then we hustled off to the subway to get a bowl of pho at Bon Bon Vietnamese Sandwich, a very unassuming little neighborhood joint. The food is better than you think it's going to be. Then of course we went to Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.
Friday morning, after our show at the Aster in Minneapolis (which was moved due to an NBC interview with Steph Curry next door, another crazy story I don't have time to tell) we got an amazing espresso at Five Watt. I noticed Cinco de Mayo next door and we drove away with six of the biggest baddest tamales in the Midwest. It was down in the single digit temperatures, but the chicken with green sauce turned on the southern heat.
After we left Minneapolis, it was hard to find a good restaurant, but no lack of culture. A Mexican Pentecostal church was in full swing in the basement of the building where we played in Windom, Minnesota. The little Jackson Center for the Arts was outgrowing its walls with a newfound arts community. The good food was on our hosts' tables. As usual.
Charlie plays in a great band called The Stray Birds. Check out this awesome song, "Best Medicine"
Almost every night somebody says, "That's one of the best shows I've ever seen." We're at the top of our game. Come out and see us:
MAR 22 WED
opening for The Steel Wheels!
MAR 24 FRI
APR 7 FRI
APR 9 SUN
APR 23 SUN
APR 29 SAT
opening for The Steel Wheels!
Byron and Johnny