On Tour, Part 3: The “San Francisco of Appalachia”

More late night driving lands me still amped up enough to continue the tour diary a little bitty bit mo’.

The title is what someone described Harrisburg, PA to me after my gig there at the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center’s Stage on Herr. For those out of geography class too long, Harrisburg is the state capitol of Pennsylvania, and as such has a lot more going on than you’d expect fora semi-rural area known affectionately as “Pennsyltucky”. The two owners, John and Gary, walked out on a dizzying array of careers in film and television and I couldn’t keep track of what else, to sink their savings into an incredible old building they’re fast making the epicenter of the region’s previously scattered arts scene. The sound is probably the best I’ve had all tour, and the crowd was so primed to get what I was doing that I ended up, late that night, forced back on stage to do a second, unrehearsed set. I had a flicker of how people go crazy when they suddenly become famous. It was dislocating, a bit, but … well, if it’s like Harrisburg, then I could “muscle through” the troubles of the overly-beloved.

But enough about me: I have a theory that Harrisburg could become the next Austin or Portland. Call me crazy, but I even liked the visual art I was seeing there, and the joyously off-center people I got to hang with. What else does a town need?

OK back to me:

New York saw the reunion of – well, me and my ex-band mate, ex-producer Chris Cochrane. I first met Chris years before when my friend (and later Rolling Stone editor) Mark Kemp asked me to write a story about gay musicians – like, where the hell were they? (This was waaaay back when, when the general assumption was that there WERE no gay musicians.) Chris was one of the few I could find other than myself, and he was doing it in the world of art-rock/avant-jazz/art-funk/Knitting Factory noise-rock/what the hell else can you call it. At the time, he’d just self-released an extraordinary cassette only solo album then called “What Stops Us”, but was more widely known for the band he co-founded with harpist Zeena Parkins, NO SAFETY and for his work with the legendary John Zorn.

But the truth was, there was a kind of emotional terrain that I felt was our commonality more than our sexuality – although truly you couldn’t/can’t separate them. The only other artists I felt any of that particular kinship with were David Clement and Rose Polenzani, who I’ve never met and who seems to have moved on to different kinds of work now anyway.

And that’s what went on display at our show at Dixon Place. The place was packed, and packed with a crowd who felt our emotional landscape, recognized it in their own lives, and seemed hungry to hear what they weren’t hearing sung anywhere else. It was an emotional evening, and strange for me, who has spent years with crowds that only half-got what I was doing. Homecoming time. The show was strangely hard to do, and I found myself dropping into performance-art-mode, where you just dump the way you rehearsed things and instead just go with what happens in your hand from moment to moment. But I reckon that just made it all the more honest.

I lit out the next morning from Cambridge, Mass. and Portland, Maine, neither of which were noteworthy — except maybe for the not-jaw-dropping discovery that it’s probably better not to book me after a stand-up-comedy open-mike.

I could write more, but this is already way too much. Long drive tomorrow for a late afternoon Friday event and then an early Saturday evening show in Poughkeepsie. Then it’s a mad race to the airport and Los Angeles. Talk to you from there …

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© Dudley Saunders