Colorado, July 2009
Buried among the accolades for Aphrodesia's more publicly lauded achievements is a little-heralded motivational self-help book called How to Get A Group Of People to Do Anything You Want All the Time. A mass-market tome that vanished from supermarket checkout lines almost as soon as it appeared, the book, while illustrating the show-business axiom of 'don't quit your day job' with forgettable platitudes and disposable writing, nonetheless contained nuggets of wisdom that illuminated the inner workings of the the inscrutable 11-piece band via the plentiful examples that dotted the book's 136 pages.
For example, in the chapter entitled, "Group Dynamics in Enclosed Spaces', we have the following entry, dated July 3, 2009, from the beginning of the group's two week tour to Colorado and back.
'There are times when achieveable goals will not be enough to keep your group focused and content with the task at hand. We began one tour with an almost unheard-of amount of driving- San Francisco to Winnemucca, Nevada, then in the early morning on to Salt Lake City, where we played a so-short-it's-over-already gig to a lunchtime crowd, then back in the bus for a drive on to Boulder, Colorado, which proved to be too much for us and we stopped midway through Wyoming at a hot springs resort just off the interstate. Now, imagine if we had focuses entirely on the gigs to play, the packed houses waiting for us in Boulder and Denver, the adulation of the crowd waiting for us in Carbondale. Those are powerful lures, to be sure, but as anyone who has glanced at a map of the gargantuan Western United States, and has seen the Calder's Circus-like airspace inside the Aphrodesia bus it probably wouldn't have been enough, even for a group of people ostensibly focused on playing music and little else.
Instead, you must be flexible and Create Incentives for your group along the way. For example, on the drive to Salt Lake we stopped at Dave and Mona's house, old friends thrilled to open their home and barbeque for us while watching a beautiful desert sunset. On the drive to Boulder, we gave in to the distance and stowed ourselves for the night in the middle of Wyoming at the Saratoga Hot Springs, a plunge which almost rejeuvenated us enough to forget about the double digit hours crammed into a bus driving through the summer desert heat.
The ensuing success of the beginning that tour, playing for crowds at the Fox Theater in Boulder, teaming up with the Chicago Afrobeat Project in Denver, would only have been possibly if we had followed the critical rule of Being Flexible and Creating Incentives for Your Group Along the Way.'
In the next chapter, we'll examine such subject as huge touring bands and the people in small towns who love them, organic farmers and the huge bands who love staying with them, and more.
CHAPTER 2, WHEREIN OUR HEREOS DESCEND ON THE SMALL MOUNTAIN TOWNS OF THE WESTERN SLOPE OF THE COLORADO ROCKIES AND ALMOST LOSE THEIR SENSE OF BAND IDENTITY AMONG THE BREATHTAKING NATURAL BEAUTY AND DISTRACTIONS OF A FEW DAYS OFF AND THE CONFOUNDING KINDNESS DISPLAYED BY EVERYONE THERE.
In Carbondale we have our first 'good' gig of the tour. Maybe it's the roaring crowd, filling up the town park and cheering us on while holding babies aloft and dancing. Maybe it's the group of 6 or 7 year old girls who come up and dance while we valaintly try and pull off a version of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'". Maybe it's the fact that we valiantly try a song we don't really know at all that loosens us up and gets the gears moving again.
Whatever the case the wheels are turning again, and what for a few nights had been an effort, bold strokes to stay focused, remember the drum breaks, the key changes before the solo section in 'Trouble,' the rhythmic beat poetry of 'Snack Nation' now glides into place, we can look around while the car drives itself, wow, check out that rainbow over off stage left, check out that girl who just pulled her skirt up in the front row, and wouldn't you know it, the song is still playing, the crowd is still dancing and smiling at us.
Of course, it's not really all about the crowd like we sometimes say, it's really all about us. Onstage at Carbondale Henry takes a trumpet solo that soars above 'Trouble' and leaves us breathless (maybe that was the altitude though?). 'Trouble' is in mixolydian mode, while most of our songs are in the minor mode, and that one raised note, the third of the scale, has always set Henry off in exospheric directions. Of course, the mixolydian mode is the same notes as the minor scale a fourth down, and the bass line to this part of 'Trouble' reflects this, hovering between F7 and C minor like a running back caught in slow motion about to turn back toward the middle of the field or sprint downwind along the sideline. Henry stabs parts of pentatonic runs that grow longer and more complicated; I echo him on the bass, plucking notes that run higher and higher until I am only reaching back to hit a low F every two bars, the melodic contour of the song stretching into a raga-like trance. We are using the entire range now, Mully's repeating single-note pattern laying sideways between Tom's porno-funk wah-wah guitar slabs in the middle, Micah keeping it jagged like Elvin Jones, the beat implied but not stated, while Spooner lays down the only solid ground for us to hold onto on the congas.
And then, bam, it's over, Henry is done, and Charlie and Liz join him on the horn line, my bass slams back into its normal octave range, the rhythm tightens and we drop down a whole step for the same thing until giving way for a breath, space like a wide alpine meadow after an hour of hiking a thick forest, as Lara and Maya sing a Ghanaian tune we have dubbed 'mini Life of Jennie' for its alliteration.
'Trouble' has evolved over the years into something of an Afro-prog rock opera in length and scope, reaching heights (or depths, depending on your perspective) we never could have composed in one sitting. After the tectonic whirlwind that is Henry's solo, the song opens up into 'Mini Life', Lara's voice bouncing off a simple three-chord backdrop that sounds like a pop song, with a slightly more rhythmic electro-samba feel in the bridge. After the second verse, it's back to the huge, vintage-sounding afrobeat horn line that opened up the 'B' section in the first place, which then gives way to the bass stating the opening theme from the beginning alone, followed by the entire band playing the first 'A' section horn line all the way through, ending on the repeats after bar 14.
English professors might call this structure 'ending where you began,' a device used by everyone from Tolkein in 'Lord of the Rings' to Susan Hinton in 'The Outsiders.' Music teachers might call this 'sonata form.' All we know is by the time Henry's solo starts, we have already been playing the song for 6 or 7 minutes, and by the time it's all over we are normally ready for a set break.
After Carbondale and the party at Catrina's house, we make for Paonia and Daphne and Don's
Zephyros Farms organic farm on the high plains of the Western Slope of the Rockies. It's unbelievably gorgeous here, and we don't really mind a couple days off, hiking, swimming in the pond, and hanging out with the friendliest group of organic farmers we think we've ever met. On Tuesday we play at their annual farm dinner party, perched on flatbed trailers by the pond while the moon rises over the 11,000 ft high Mount Lamborn in the distance behind us.
But something nags at us the next day as we hike yet another gorgeous breathtaking vista, this time at Lost Lake, a string of alpine lakes where we strip down and swim in the freezing cold water with my sister Sylvia, her husband Alistair and their baby Isaiah Marvel Jones. Who Are We? Are we a band? Toursits? Hikers? Beer Adventurers? What are we doing here?
to answer these questions I walk into Louie's pizza that night, on the main drag of Paonia on our way back to the farm for another night of hanging out in the moonlight.
"Hey, we're Aphrodesia. We're um, from San Francisco and ah, we don't really have anything to do tonight. What do you think about us playing here tonight?" I ask him.
Louie is a compact man, shorter than me, glasses, worn jeans, an apron around his waist, and he eyes me and eyes the bus outside.
"Ok. Sure. Let me show you where to set up."
Which brings us to the first 'great' gig of the tour. Outside in the patio on Louie's Pizza on Main St. in Paonia, Colorado, with the only crowd being those who heard about it on the radio an hour earlier (the radio station being across the street from Louei's, and Maya and Tom having walked over there and asked them to announce it over the air to the Wester Slope), or heard the noise while they were in town to pick up their mail at the post office (the post office being a block away), or having gotten a call from Darci, the bartender (Darci being a singer herself, and having assured me not to worry, 'everyone' would be there when we started playing). Maybe the music flowed because it was so random and unexpected that we were playing at all, maybe it flowed because we started the set with 'Heaven' and 'Step Into Your Life,' two songs we hadn't prepared with Tom Lattaland- filling in for Mike Abraham on guitar- and Micah Mclain- filling in for Jason Slota on drums and so hadn't played yet on the tour. Whatever the case, we are loose, free, and groovy, and we feel better rocking the patio at Louie's than we have all tour. Afterwards we ask ourselves, what about a tour where we just drive around and look for places to play every night? Could we do it?
At Louie's we cannot plug in the mbira, so we perform 'Flat Tire' with guitars filling in for the mbira part. It takes on a different hue, like looking at your favorite photo with the negative reversed, and it's inspiring. Micah knocks out a 12/8 rhythm on the drums, the guitars rock out on the choruses, and it frees Lara up too to just sing and not play mbira, her voice darts and weaves in places it normally sticks to a straight line. It's beautiful, and it makes us remember we're a band and not a bunch of backpackers.
CHAPTER 3, IN WHICH OUR HEROES TAPE GLOW STICKS ON FRISBEES IN RIDGWAY, HANG WITH A MOVIE STAR IN TELLURIDE AND DECLINE TO PAY TO SEE WHERE FOUR STATES COME TOGETHER, AND THEN DON'T WRITE ABOUT ANY OF THAT IN THEIR TOUR DAIRY
We make setlists on cocktail napkins, stray pieces of notebook paper, unused music notation manuscript. We predict the flow of the set, the rise and fall of the crowd’s embrace, outline the arc of the sculpted block of music that will pour forth from us with the hopeful accuracy of a small town weather forecaster. Sometimes this is like a batting order, “Olodo” leading off, “Say What” batting cleanup, and so on. Sometimes it’s a jigsaw puzzle of a road map- we know we want to end with “Bus Driver” and start with “Heaven”, and take a breath around song six for Lara to sit down with “Virgin of the Sun God”, so we dutifully fill in the gaps in our route. At Ridgway we get lazy and use our set from Louie’s Pizza the night before with a couple additions, but it mostly works. Most other shows we start from scratch, building a new set like pitching a tent in an untouched meadow every night. We could simplify things and use the same set every night, but each place has its own vibe, each crowd its character- moving the beer soaked crowd in Telluride demands a different road map than playing for families stretched on picnic blankets in Ridgway.
We have a nasty habit of calling songs by different names on the set list, on the albums and in conversation. It’s fine for us, like remembering cousins’ nicknames, but every time someone new is brought into our fold it causes ripples. This time it’s Tom and Micah who must remember that “Sirena” is “Every Day,” “Natty” is “Kari Buro,” “Ah Yeah” is “Agayu.”
For years we had a ‘no guitar solos’ rule, as ironclad as unplanned pregnancy advice from a Bush appointee to a teenager. Once in the woods near Santa Cruz at a place called Henfling’s the sound guy in a trucker cap and black rocker T-shirt curled mic cords after our show and shook his head, mumbling “Man, I ain’t never seen a band with two guitar players and no guitar solos ”to Mully and I. But over the years it has frayed, guitar solos seeping into our live sets like the house guest who won’t leave, your husband’s wacky cousin who comes for Christmas and ends up morphing from a short stay in the guest room to owning a shelf in the refrigerator. But this house guest turns out to have his perks- the wacky cousin who talks Proust with Aunt Miranda and jabs football with your next door neighbor who thought you were worthless. At Ridgway facing a lawnfull of picnic blankets, dancing families and one jaw-dropping sunset painted on 14,000 foot mountain peaks, Mully peels off distorted blues licks on “Friday Night” like he’s shaving a carrot, tossing a jagged phrase to the crowd, waiting, tossing another. The crowd eats it up. Not to be outdone Tom sprays raw porno-funk all over the walls of the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon in Telluride the next night, lighting up “Agayu” with wah-wah fueled ecstasy. The crowd, getting it, goes nuts.
Telluride is probably our best night, the looseness of Louie’s Pizza merging with the energy of Carbondale for the perfect cocktail. Which doesn’t mention partying with Jeremy from the Japonize Elephants and crashing at Daryl Hannah’s brother’s place for the night.
Flagstaff is a long hot drive and one denied photo op at Four Corners (you want us to pay for that?) away, and when there we revisit one the seminal moments of the Just Vote Tour. The Mogollon Brewery is now the Green Room, but still right here is where we had the veggie bus parked outside, right here is where the Republican gave a speech about voting and gave us a gallon of store-bought veggie oil, which then saved our asses by cleaning out the fuel line later that night. We rock a good crowd to close out this leg of the tour, try and find a bonfire down the alleyway but end up making fun of ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ upstairs in our apartment instead. Mully drives me to the airport at 4:30 in the morning and I barely make it onboard before closing my eyes.