I’m not used to being up this early; it always makes me feel like I have to go to a court hearing. Or a hospital. Luckily, this wake-up call involves neither and our tour bus is picking up members of Bingo! and Noisician Coalition just around the corner from my house.
This tour bus is nice, as in Winger nice. Somehow I doubt there will be any debauchery happening on this trip, despite the fact that we are a decidedly weird bunch. My idea of tour buses begins and ends with ‘80s hair metal videos. It’s a typical tour bus actually, with a hangout/kitchen space in the front, plenty of bunks for cramped sleeping and a rounded back room stocked with what could be called “antiquated” electronic entertainment gear: a television, stereo, DVD player, Playstation 2 and an old XBox. The controllers to play these game systems are nowhere to be found and the only game we can find on the bus is one called “Outlaw Golf.” I imagine gangs of bikers beating each other with golf clubs.
The back end of the bus has become NoiseCo HQ , with the members of the Bingo! team towards the front, handling what sounds to be a huge production in store for the Kennedy Center performance. They seem relaxed but busy, definitely focused. We’re loud, boisterous, occasionally scatological and it only makes sense since there is a moratorium on booze drinking and cigarette smoking on the bus.
Flat tire in the deep south. This is zombie country. Most of us were napping at this point, so the blowout scared the living crap out of a few people, but everyone is okay. A perfect example now of the rule of the road: hurry up and wait. How do you change a flat tire on a tour bus anyway? We’re all out on the side of the highway now, taking pictures and making the best of the situation. Fortunately the weather is nice and everyone is in good spirits. After about an hour, word spreads that help is on the way; I imagine giant wrecker trucks, the size of Sherman tanks rolling up and lifting the huge bus off the ground. Turns out it’s a good ol’ boy with a hydraulic lift on his normal-sized truck. The tire is fixed as fast as any other and we’re on our way.
We arrive in Asheville and settle into the parking lot of a sprawling hotel. Time to get some sleep. The bunks on the bus are like open-view coffins: each comes with fold-down TV screens and DVD players. A morgue with entertainment. Impossible to write in these circumstances. I now understand why bands have said that playing a tour is great, but being on tour not so much. Goodnight.
We’re going to the Moog factory/store today. Founded by the legendary Bob Moog, creator of the modern synthesizer, this is the only HQ in the world for the fabrication, testing and repairing of their synthesizers, guitars and theremins. We’re given the grand tour: showroom, shipping, assembly and the sound lab, which is where all makes and models of their instruments are hot and ready to use. Mecca for gear-heads like us. The room erupts into a wall of bleeps, sqawks and squeals as fast as our eager hands can reach something to play. It all ends with an impromptu jam by members of Bingo! and NoiseCo. This place looks like it would be a dream job for anyone on this tour. I’m struck by how friendly the staff is; it’s refreshing to say the least. Bonus: they give us promotional shirts, stickers and pocket protectors. Nuff said.
Next stop is a middle school associated with the LEAF program, which teaches young students about the importance of music, particularly jazz. Some of the students there made a trip to New Orleans to play for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, so I guess we’re here to return the favor. The only difference being this is the Noisician Coalition, in full gear, walking into an auditorium full of stunned middle schoolers. Ron Rona emcees the affair, which is essentially us showing the kids that you can make music out of anything. They are hesitant at first, either timid or just simply freaked out by our appearance. After some prodding by Robert Starnes, a few kids give it a go and blow us all away with their musical aptitude. A 14 year-old kid gets up and knocks out an insane drum solo on a washtub drum offered to him. Two other kids jam on kazoos through a Gramoblaster. Eventually, the whole room gets going and we have what amounts to a jam session. Afterwards, we shake hands, say our thanks and it’s back on the bus to a surprise destination.
A tour of a brew pub, Altamont Brewing, has been arranged. Now this is more like it. Only all we really do is taste beers. Over and over and over. The brew- master is from New Orleans, so we get star treatment. The crowd is a strange mix of quasi-punks, working class stiffs and just regular folks looking for a drink. It starts to rain but no one seems to care. It doesn’t look like we’re going back to the bus anytime soon, so shots are ordered. We spend the rest of our time here socializing and I foolishly accept a singing duel with a girl who turns out to be classically trained. Bad move.
Hazy memories of walking in the rain, towards the hotel that our bus is parked in front of. I’m filthy; I think I fell in the mud. At least, I hope I fell in the mud. I need to use a bathroom, but instead I find myself walking through the employee hallways of the hotel. A few more wrong turns and I wind up in a ballroom, empty and quiet. I actually debate, in my drunken haze, about just hanging out in this huge quiet space, but somehow my reptile brain keeps me looking for a way to the bathroom. I find it just in time. Walking back to the bus I feel like a ninja that has just infiltrated a secret government installation, when all I really am is a filthy, soaking wet schmuck who got lost in a hotel looking for a place to pee. I pass out in my bunk pointing the wrong way, without so much as removing my shoes. Is this what rock stars do on tour?
Somewhere near D.C. I’m still in my bunk. Good lord, I’m filthy. From what it sounds like, a lot of the other people on the bus are sleeping it off as well. It’s quiet in here. The Bingo! crew is up and at it, though; from what I can hear the planning and plotting for the show is at full tilt. This is going to be a big event. I better get more rest.
We have landed. Washington, D.C. Personal hotel room. Shower. Shave. Return to human form. Some of the Noisicians, they’re about to play tourist. As it turns out, we’re close to the Mall, where most of the attractions are. Then tonight it’s on to the Kennedy Center for a cast meeting.
The Mall is an easy walk from the hotel, but once there I realize just how big that area is. I’m guessing this must be the off season as both the Washington and World War Two memorials are under heavy repair. I see more than a few dejected sightseers wandering around, looking for flattering angles for their photos. The Vietnam memorial is impressive. It starts as one name and grows to a wall of around eight feet high, filled with names. Then it tapers back down to just one name. The effect is both humbling and chilling. We take a detour to walk past the White House, which I decide looks bigger in the movies. But this is it—the nerve center of all paranoia. There are snipers on the roof, not even concealing their positions. I expected legions of protesters with signs and slogans to be there, but there was only one guy with a small tent set up across the street. He does have
a suitably schizophrenic protest sign displayed, proclaiming a “peace vigil” that has been in effect for over 30 years in that very spot. On the way back, we pass the Watergate hotel and a wash of bad vibes passes over me.
The cast and crew meeting is fairly anticlimactic. Actually anything would have been after our first walk-through of the Kennedy center. This place is huge. We marvel at the marquee for the show just outside of the front doors, featuring the names of all of the acts to be presented… it’s hitting me, the size and weight of this production. Intimidating.
I hope we do New Orleans proud. We’re ushered into the bowels of the center, backstage. Signed and framed photos line every wall: famous composers, musicians and performers who have played the same stage that we will occupy tomorrow night. Star Wars composer John Williams. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Jerry Seinfeld. This is real. Almost everyone involved in our show is here: Bingo! Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Big Freedia. GIVERS. Noisician Coalition. Mystic Ponies aerial troupe. Fleur de Tease. Young Fellaz brass band. Quintron isn’t in D.C. yet, but someone said he was en route. Some acts trickle in late but this is just for blocking off times and airing concerns. Luckily, there aren’t many.
This feels like a classroom for students who are continuing their education. The staff at the Kennedy Center is courteous and professional; it makes me wonder if they have ever dealt with a group like us before. We’ll find out soon enough.
as we’re making the short trip to the Kennedy Center I can’t help but think that it’s somehow appropriate, me having a New Orleans-sized hangover
I wake up soaking wet, still fully clothed, on the floor of my hotel room. Someone is beating on the door. I tear myself from the carpet to find that it’s one of the Noisicians, telling me it’s time to get ready, time to get the show on the road. I peel my clothes off and they land with a sick plop on the bathroom floor. I wash the night before off of me as fast as I can and get dressed even faster. I have hazy memories from our night on the town, but nothing that makes any sense, even to me. Where were we? Adams-Morgan? Where the fuck is that? Oh wait, I saw Madame’s Organ: that’s the bar where hardcore bands used to play in the ‘80s, right? A good friend who lives in D.C. ran up and shoved a wad of money into my pocket. “D.C. is an expensive place,” she told me. Big mistake. We took over an otherwise empty basement-style bar named “The Bottoms Up” which was manned by a bartender who seemed more out of it than we were.
By the time I make it downstairs, our shuttle is waiting. We pile in and as we’re making the short trip to the Kennedy Center I can’t help but think that it’s somehow appropriate, me having a New Orleans-sized hangover. I remind myself that I have done far more with far less as we pull up to the venue.
More hurry up and wait. Everyone is either busy doing something or doing absolutely nothing at all. The production staff is in constant motion, as are various members of each act needed to sound check but most of us assembled are really just hanging out backstage like groupies at our own concert. Sitting on couches. Touring the Kennedy center. Visiting the gift shop. Going outside to smoke obsessively. Bit by bit, all of the artists arrive and it’s obvious that everyone is a little awed by the size and scope of what’s going to happen tonight. By the time our pre-show dinner is served, each act emerges from their dressing rooms looking as ready as they’ll ever be. I wonder to myself if any of them are shaking off as brutal a hangover as I am.
The crowd has descended and are being seated, house lights down. There’s a pervasive air of affluence in the room. I’ve performed with the Noisician Coalition for over eight years but this is the first time I’m nervous. This isn’t Mardi Gras, no matter how much of a carnival-like spin is being displayed. There are bingo cards on the armrests of the first few rows of chairs. There’s a makeshift bar on the stage, where Lefty Parker is going to DJ the event. A huge video screen dominates the back of the auditorium. We’re told not to leave the backstage area, so the illusion won’t be broken. But that’s about to change, as it’s time for the unofficial first act of the night to start. NoiseCo is geared and ready, not for the stage but for the masses. Showtime.
Exhilaration. Pure joy and wonderful madness. Noisicians stormtroop the floor of the Kennedy Center even as people are still being shown to their seats. We scramble from exit to exit, criss-crossing through foyers and lobbies and back again, short, sharp, shocks to the sold-out crowd with no pauses, no breaks and no filler. Blink and you would have missed us. Helen Gillet brings the show to a subdued, beautiful start. Next up, the Noisicians join Bingo! on stage for their opener of the night “New Orleans,” to sing the chorus all while acting as local drunks carousing at the bar on stage. Appropriate, but ironic in that we aren’t given any real booze for our simulated drinking. Actually, that’s a very smart move. We stumble off, exit stage left. Everyone has brought their “A” game to this one, it’s already evident.
Intermission. And trust me, the crowd needs one after what just went down on the stage. They paid for a night of New Orleans music and culture and I’m not sure if they were entirely ready for what has already happened. Honestly, the weirdest part of the night is over; Bingo!, GIVERS, Fleur de Tease and Mystic Ponies all pull off seamless performances, intersecting at all the right moments. Preservation Hall Jazz Band holds the entire audience in the palm of their hands, deftly transferring what is usually their up-close and personal performances to the much wider confines of the Kennedy center.
It’s interesting to watch the control room of the production, but you don’t have to be in the wings to enjoy the show backstage. There are monitors everywhere, as well as a comm system that not only broadcasts the music being played onstage, but also the chatter of the various directors, assistants and sound men. Most of the night, it’s the typical calling of cues—”Bingo! stage right,” or “Mystic Ponies, up next.” But after Preservation Hall, the comm chatter goes absolutely nuts with the arrival of Mr. Quintron. Starting off his short set with his patented invention, the Drum
Buddy, Quintron (with Miss Pussycat by his side as always) then launches into his unique brand of swamp-soaked organ playing. The comm comes alive with multiple voices, one clearer than all the rest—“That’s a bad motherfucker right there!” And whoever says it is right. Quintron absolutely plays at his peak, with a broad smile that captures the enthusiasm of everyone on board. But this isn’t the highlight of the show: that honor goes to Big Freedia, who takes to the stage in a flurry of dancers, shaking asses and trademark repetitive booty bounce rap. Again, the comm goes ballistic, only this time it’s gasps, cackling laughter and enough chatter to make it necessary to go to the side of the stage to see the spectacle in person. To say that the crowd didn’t know what hit them would be exactly on the mark. For 15 solid minutes, Big Freedia owns the Kennedy Center, with audience members just as shocked and entertained as those running the show.
While intermission gives those in attendance a moment to grab a stiff drink or simply try to make sense of what the hell they have just witnessed, Big Freedia and crew return backstage to a well- deserved ovation. The show resumes; select members of NoiseCo are using spotlights in the aisles to add drama to Bingo!’s song “Pierre Pressure.” A short film of New Orleans in the rain screens while Preservation Hall sets up for one last piece of the action, with “August Nights.” Suddenly, I’m homesick. Then, in what seems to be a late entry to the proceedings, the actual bingo game begins. This is possibly the only misstep in an otherwise flawless night, as first there is a winner, then there isn’t; then there are two lucky ladies being pulled onto the stage for an impromptu robot dance-off to determine the true “winnah” of the night. Of course, the crowd isn’t going to send either woman home a loser so both are declared victorious.
During this time, the only bad news of the night is heard by a couple of people in the lobby—Big Freedia had offended a few of the more sensitive patrons in attendance. They were under the impression that the night was to be a celebration of jazz music. They were wrong and had no problem with loudly complaining as they left the venue saying they “weren’t here for that shit.” Now that the bingo game is over, it’s time for a couple more performances by Bingo!/Fleur de Tease/Mystic Ponies, then the big “Saturday Night Live” finale. This means that we need to all be ready to crowd the stage, shaking hands and hugging.
The “SNL” ending is a blur, but a sweet way to end the show. As we crowd the stage to the gospel build of Bingo!’s “There is a Light,” the Noisicians have one last trick up our bullhorns—after the final goodnights and thank yous, NoiseCo members, instruments in hand, intend to chase departing audience members out of the concert hall, into the lobby and then around the Kennedy Center. We march through the Hall of Nations, past a giant bust of John F. Kennedy, then out into the open air in the front of the center itself. As patrons load onto shuttles and buses, we provide the final reminder of what the entire show has come to personally mean to me: New Orleans, while full of honored traditions and celebrated culture, is an unpredictable beast not easily ignored, categorized or forgotten. As I’m leaving the Kennedy Center for the night, still glowing, I see Clint Maedgen. He looks beyond happy, beyond satisfied. He gives me a big hug and says “We did it; we fucking did it, brother.” That’s all I needed to hear. Mission accomplished.