Quacking Toilet, Hidden Moose II

OK, picking up where I left off… or actually overlapping with the end of the first installment. Whatever, this is a blog, not the great American novel.

I noticed something during the night: the toilet quacked. Anytime the toilet got flushed (which was often with 3 drunks and a pregnant woman) it would quack like a duck for a while. I think it had something to do with the extra-low water pressure coming in from the well. Or maybe our cabin was haunted by the ghost of an angry duck. Although it didn’t sound angry.

I really wanted to sleep in that morning. It had been a heck of a week, and I was way behind on sleep. After a good 7 hours in the truck and a 3-hour show, I was wiped out. Unfortunately, I woke up really early. I can’t say how early, ’cause there wasn’t a single thing in the room that told time, which actually made it much nicer.

Dinner the night before was pretty small, so I woke up HUNGRY. That was probably what woke me up in the first place. I lay in bed hoping everyone else could sleep in, but secretly wanting them to wake up so we could go eat. No one else slept in very late, either, which was just fine by me.

A fully-equipped guitarist and his better half.
A fully-equipped guitarist and his better half.

So, breakfast I already discussed, back to the lodge, warm clothes, out for a walk. Still no moose, although the locals seemed to think AVOIDING the moose would be more challenging than spotting one, so I remained hopeful. We learned that the best time to spot moose is with fresh snow on the roads. They’ve learned that the snow plows will leave them a salty treat on the curves, so you have to slow down every time you drive around a curve lest you hit one.

Making a snow angel on the lake.
Making a snow angel on the lake.

Walking around the frozen lake was absolutely beautiful. We didn’t make it too far, though, as the weather was steadily going downhill. The sky got darker, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped and a few flurries started blowing around. We headed back to the cabin for an afternoon of shooting the breeze and sipping the Castle Danger.

The wife and me out on the lake.
The wife and me out on the lake.

Breakfast was so tasty, we opted to head back to the Trail Center lodge for dinner. A light snow was falling just as the sun was setting: perfect moosing conditions. I talked the gang into taking a drive up and down a few miles in hopes of spotting a moose before dinner.

Five is a nice, round number, so we headed five miles past the restaurant before turning around. No moose. However, when I hit the brakes to slow down and turn around, we slid. A lot. Fortunately, it was in a straight line on a straight road. That was all the wake up call we needed to turn around, eat dinner, and get our butts back to the lodge before the weather got any worse.

This is about the time the real world started nosing into our weekend of isolation. As the weather got worse and worse, all we could think of was the long drive home the next morning. The forecast still claimed it wasn’t going to be that bad, but none of us liked the look of the skies.

We played our second night at the lodge to another great crowd. The crowd was a little smaller, as more people stayed home or left early to dodge the snow, now turning to sleet.

We all opted to load up the gear right away, because we had every indication the morning would be worse. It was still warm, which was nice, but the snow/ice/sleet/slush was coming down thick. Ready to head out first thing in the morning, we crawled back into bed, keenly aware that our weekend of luxury was all but over.

Early the next morning, Jimmy and Chrissy were packed up and on the road. My wife and I were not far behind. We had just finished loading the truck when Jimmy came back. His car couldn’t make it up the hill on the fresh ice, and he was hoping to make it out driving in our tracks. My “truck” is really just a bloated car, but it’s heavy, so I was cautiously optimistic. We drove to the far end of the complex to get a running start at the one big hill, and both cars made it.

It’s about 2 miles from the main lodge to the Gunflint Trail. Upon reaching the Trail, we were happy to see that it had been plowed. Unfortunately, that left a 2-foot wall of ice between us and the Trail. With a couple spotters watching for traffic, I got a running start and broke a hole through for both cars.

From there, it was an hour back to Highway 61 and another 30 minutes to a gas station and coffee shop. A couple more hours of beautiful-to-look-at but white-knuckle-to-drive-in roads got us to Duluth, where we stopped (back at Fitger’s) for lunch with a friend.

At this point, I had to admit that I wasn’t going to see a moose. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it was pretty unlikely on the Interstate.

The only moose I saw. He's had better days.
The only moose I saw. He's had better days.

As we made our way south, the ice turned to snow, the snow turned to rain, the rain dried up and we arrived home without incident.

Quacking Toilet, Hidden Moose

Originally, I was a little annoyed that I couldn’t post updates from the band trip to Grand Marais this weekend (no cell reception up there). Now I think it’s a good thing… I’m always looking for topics to write about, and I achieved a higher level of relaxation not being connected for a couple days.

Friday morning, after another lovely evening of insomnia, my wife and I got up around 6:30 and began preparing for the drive. Somehow, we managed to stretch that into three hours of coffee, packing, thermostat adjusting and who knows what else. Finally, the truck was full, but our stomachs were empty. We decided that every good trip begins with a solid, healthy breakfast and headed over to Baker’s Wife for doughnuts and an American Teacake.

For those of you not in the know, an American Teacake from Baker’s Wife may be the single greatest baked good ever created. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s large, sweet, crispy, chewy, gooey and about 16 other textures all in one bundle of dough. If you go in the morning, you can almost always get one that’s still warm, because none of them last more than a few minutes. They’re excellent for reducing stress.

Freshly packed with nutrients, we headed north. I had kept a close eye on the weather leading up to the trip, but it looked good. We ended up with clear skies and dry roads the whole trip, making excellent time. We managed to miss the worst of rush hour, and never hit any traffic. This is excellent for reducing stress.

As we neared Duluth, I remembered I had intended to bring an empty growler so we could stop at Fitger’s for a refill. But, my wife really wanted another Nalgene Growler anyway, so we decided to stop and get one. I ended up with a growler of Castle Danger IPA (awesome) and she got some root beer (also awesome). Growlers from Fitger’s are excellent for reducing stress.

North of Duluth, the drive starts getting much more appealing. Highway 61 replaces Interstate 35, frequently offering a view onto Superior. While not always ideal while driving, looking out over Lake Superior is excellent for reducing stress. (Especially when accompanied by snow-blanketed evergreens.)

We got into Grand Marais, passing the studios for WTIP, where we were heading for an interview later in the afternoon. OK, great, we know where that is, no problem. We began following the GPS to the lodge, since we had plenty of time. Unfortunately, Garmin’s idea of Highway 12 doesn’t quite match reality, so we turned back towards town to get directions. We stopped at a gas station/hardware store.

I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew where the Hungry Jack Lodge was. She, a couple other employees, and a nearby customer all chimed in, offering to help. Small town friendliness is excellent for reducing stress.

We headed off towards the lodge, a fairly easy 45-minute drive up the Gunflint Trail. We still had clear skies and mostly dry roads, which was wonderful. The farther we got up the Trail, the more remote it got. Buildings got farther apart and trees got closer together.

I had one main goal for this weekend: seeing a moose. It might sound silly, but I’ve never seen a moose in the wild, and I really want to. Up until a few years ago, I had never seen a bald eagle in the wild either, and the first time was awesome. Now the eagle population is coming back strong, and they’re pretty common… heck, we saw a half dozen on this drive. Still, you don’t see a lot of moose in the Cities, and it’s one of those little things I want to do before I die. (Seeing a penguin in the wild is also on the list, but that’ll be a whole separate trip.)

Anyway, the drive back to the lodge looked like a prime moose-viewing opportunity, so I was hopeful. No moose on the way in, but if this is where we’d be the next couple days, my odds had to be pretty good.

We got to the lodge, checked in with the owners (Forest and Erica), saw where we’d be playing and where we’d be sleeping. We were able to unload most of the gear before heading back into town for the radio interview. Everyone was extremely friendly and excited to have us there. We even got some help carrying equipment down the stairs. We had to fight the urge to linger too long because it was so beautiful there, but we had just barely enough time to get back to WTIP. Friendly people who are happy to see you and giving you a place to stay in a northern Minnesota paradise are excellent for reducing stress.

Looking Out My Back Door
The view out the door of the cabin.

Another uneventful drive down the Gunflint Trail and we were at the WTIP studio just a few minutes behind schedule. Jimmy & Chris were already there (along with Chrissy and Stacy) and ready to go. Again, everyone at the station was friendly, easy to work with and happy to have us there. We ended up getting about 30 minutes on air, chatting with the hosts and playing 4 songs live. Things went well, and we headed back to the lodge. My wife and I grabbed some groceries while the others went straight to the lodge.

By this point, the sun had set, and it was dark. Really dark. You don’t get this kind of dark in the cities. We were glad we’d already made the drive once in daylight, so we knew what to expect. Still, conditions were great, so it wasn’t a big deal. We got to the lodge, and there was no sign of the others. Hmmm… that’s not good. They had at least a 20-minute head start on us. Well, nothing we can do, as there is no cell phone reception out here.

Things turned out fine, as we didn’t even get the last of the gear unloaded before the rest of the gang made it. Just a missed turn and a detour damn near to Canada. I took the opportunity to grab a pint of Honker’s Ale and start the vacation portion of the trip. We got everything in, set up the stage, ordered some dinner, and just generally prepared to have a great night.

The first night went well. Forest and Erica had gotten posters printed and hung them all over the county, so the word was out. We had a crowd of drunken snowmobilers on hand before we even started, and it just grew from there. We played about 3 hours and called it a night, knowing full well we were doing the whole thing over again the next night.

Eddie Mac with Forest & Erica
Eddie Mac with Forest & Erica, owners of the Hungry Jack Lodge.

Our cabin was maybe 100 yards from the lodge, and it was still probably 30 degrees out, so after a couple more beers, we had a slow, easy stroll to bed. Crawling into bed in a toasty warm cabin in the middle of nowhere after a few pints of Honker’s Ale and a walk through the snow is excellent for relieving stress.

We woke up a little too early the next morning, but that’s OK, as it was another beautiful day. There was an intimidatingly grey sky off in the distance, but that’s OK. We headed up the road to locate some breakfast. The Trail Center Lodge was just a couple miles away, and word on the street was that they had the best breakfast around. That rumor was true.

Eight of us went to breakfast, which probably weighed about 15 pounds. Everything was fantastic, but the star of the morning was the pancake. I use the singular, as no one finished a whole one alone. If you eat three, you get them free, but I doubt they pay up very often. These things were maybe 15″ in diameter and nearly 2″ high. They weren’t just big, though, they were the fluffiest, most delicious pancakes I’d ever tasted. Giant, delicious breakfasts are excellent for reducing stress.

We dragged our bloated selves back to the lodge and bundled up for a stroll around the lake. The weather was definitely in decline, but it was still plenty nice for a lazy hike. Chris and Stacy borrowed a snowmobile and went for a ride while the rest of us headed down to the lake for some fresh air and scenery.

Looking At My Back Door
Looking At My Back Door

OK, I have to wrap this up for now. This story is getting long, and I haven’t even gotten around to explaining the title. I have to do something today other than tell rambling stories in my blog. Part 2 will just have to wait.

I Love Minneapolis

No, really, I do. Oh, sure, my last post was full off griping about the music scene, but that doesn’t change the fact that I love this city. I complain because I care; consider it constructive criticism.

I love that we have two cities here. I live in MInneapolis, but I’m not terrified of border crossings. I love that a 10-minute drive takes me to another major city with a very different vibe.

I love diversity. Whatever your color or creed, there’s a place for you in Minneapolis. It ain’t perfect, but we’re way ahead of the curve when it comes to accepting everyone.

I love beer. We have Surly and Flat Earth and Summit and Brau Brothers and Schell’s and Liftbridge and Fitger’s and more. OK, maybe those aren’t all in MInneapolis, but they’re local.

I love food. Minneapolis is the best city I’ve ever seen for eating. We have more ethnic restaurants here than anywhere I’ve ever been. We have star chefs and bakers tucked into every corner of the town. Three meals a day are not enough to explore this city, and it keeps getting better. (Saint Paul ain’t too shabby, either.)

I love bikes. Minneapolis has miles and miles of bike trails. We’re one of the top cities in the country for bicycle commuting, and that includes winter, because Minnesotans are badasses. We have QBP and Park here.

I love theatre. This town is absolutely thick with theatre, from touring Broadway extravaganzas to self-produced one-man shows. The Guthrie alone gives us more than most people can take in. Most of it falls outside of my budget these days, but it’s still nice to know it’s available if things turn around.

I love education, and I love that Minnesotans take it seriously. As much as I try to avoid ever driving through it, I love that we have one of the largest Universities in the world.

I love winter. I don’t mind the cold, and I enjoy the snow. I like it a heck of a lot better than the humidity of summer.

I love that we’re a destination for the medical industry. I have enough problems with my health that I’m gonna need some of it over the years. I like the idea that when the time comes to start replacing parts, there’s a good chance they’ll be coming from a local company.

I don’t really care about sports, but I know a lot of people do. We have pro football and baseball and hockey and basketball. We have minor leagues and college teams. We put our high school kids on TV once in a while. I think that’s cool.

I love music.  My first images of MInneapolis came from Prince. I’ve seen so many great shows here, and I’ve had the privilege of playing a lot of the same stages. I’ve seen unknown locals knock my socks off, and I’ve seen huge international stars give once-in-a-lifetime performances.

I love Minneapolis. And I love Saint Paul and Stillwater and Duluth. In so many ways, this is the best city (and state) in which I’ve ever set foot. That’s why I stay. And if I complain sometimes, it’s because I know we can do better.

You Get What You Pay For

The Twin Cities music scene is in bad shape. There, I’ve said it. It’s taboo among musicians to publicly criticize your local scene, but it’s gotten so bad, somebody has to say something. It’s like your buddy who doesn’t shower enough… you don’t want to say anything, you think maybe he’ll work it out on his own, but eventually, there comes a day that you just can’t stand to be in the room with him anymore.

Let me tell you a story about a recent gig with one of my original projects. Original music is always a touchy subject, as there are many subjective variables to consider. The quality of the music, the ability of the performers, the appropriateness of the venue, and the intangible benefits to the band all factor into the “value” of a given night. For the sake of argument, let’s set all those values to “average” for now.

So we book this show a few weeks in advance. The booking guy at the bar is on a first-name basis with several members of the band, so we figure we’re in pretty good shape. We add the show to our website, start letting people know about it, generally get the word out. We don’t have much of a draw at this point, but we always bring a few people out and get a solidly positive reaction from everyone who sees us. I got some posters printed and took them to the bar a couple weeks in advance. It’s a busy night when I stop by, so I leave the posters with the hostess.

As the day of the show gets closer, we start getting more details. There’s no stage, so we should wait to load our equipment in until they clear out some of the dinner crowd to make room for us. OK, less than ideal, but whatever. There’s no PA, so we’ll have to provide our own sound. OK, less than ideal, but whatever. We’re the only band playing, so we need to do at least two sets, but they’d like us to play longer. OK, this is no longer a typical night of original music, this is a working gig.

ASIDE—At this point, we (the band) should have ironed out the details. We should have clarified, in writing, the pay structure for the evening. As a regularly working musician, I can tell you a night like this should have been a bare minimum of $300. Heck, I’d have charged at least $100 just to bring in my PA. Unfortunately, the band member who set this up didn’t feel comfortable asking about it, and we set ourselves up for failure. I accept that we, the band, put ourselves in a bad position, but I still maintain that the bar could have behaved much better.

I like to monitor the amount of promotion the bars do for shows, just to get an idea of what’s happening. I start checking this bar’s website periodically from the time the show is booked. Hmmm… no mention of live music on the website. At all. Maybe they haven’t updated it yet. OK, two weeks out, still no mention. One week out, still no mention. A couple days before the show, and there is not a SINGLE WORD on the bar’s website about live music in general or my band specifically. Well, OK, maybe they don’t update the website very often. Oh, wait, there are regular updates about the beer and food, so clearly, someone is dealing with the website. They simply have done NOTHING to even let customers know that they have live music.

So, it’s the night of the show. Three of us in the band (plus my wife) arrived at the same time and walked in together. Right away, our guitarist sees the guy who booked the show, who instantly recognizes him, greets him, points us to a table and tells us he’ll be right back. He comes back a few minutes later with some menus and tells us our server will be right with us. OK, that’s odd, but whatever. A few minutes later, we stop him as he walks past to ask about where and when we can start bringing in equipment.

HE STOPS AND SAYS, “OH, SHIT, I TOTALLY FORGOT THAT WAS GOING ON TONIGHT.”

Are you kidding me? The guy who books the bar, who is on a first-name basis with 3/4 of the band, didn’t even remember that there would be live music? I can only assume that the rest of the staff has no clue if he doesn’t remember. So, I start looking around the room. None of the posters I brought are hanging in the bar. In fact, I can find no evidence of live music in the room. Granted, I didn’t exactly search the whole place, but usually a bar that has live music has some indication of it.

OK, deep breath. Let’s work out exactly what we’re facing here. We’re not getting paid, we’re not getting food, we’re not getting beer. We’re not getting a stage, we’re not getting a PA, we’re not even getting a corner of the bar until folks are done with dinner. We’re not getting any publicity, in fact, no one we haven’t told even knows we’re going to be there. As far as we can tell, no one in the room even knows there will be live music. What we are getting is the opportunity to play music and drink beer, assuming we want to buy some beer. We get that same opportunity weekly. We call it “rehearsal.”

I should add here that it’s so busy in the place, the booking guy barely has a minute to talk to us. Nearly every table is full, and he tells us it’s been like that all day. And there is not one red cent in the budget for the music.

So, we have a conversation with the booking guy. We explain that perhaps it’s in everyone’s best interest if we all cut our losses and call it a night. He’ll pick up the tab for the first (very small) round we ordered and he gets to keep a couple extra tables available for seating the rest of the night. Perhaps we’ll try to reschedule this in a few weeks, and walk into it better prepared. By that, I mean maybe one freaking person in the room will even know that there will be live music.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve refrained from mentioning any names here. I did that for two reasons:

First, I’m allowing the bar and the band the chance to make things better next time. This is what we call a fuster cluck, with blame to spread around. I still feel the lion’s share goes to the bar on this one, but the band is not without fault here.

Second, I’m not singling anyone out because this attitude is not uncommon. A significant portion of the bars and the bar-going public place ABSOLUTELY NO VALUE on live music. And that’s just among the bars that book music; I’m not including the bars that don’t get involved with the scene. I’ve seen bars that take 75% of the door for themselves, then pay the sound tech out of the remaining 25%, THEN take whatever’s left for the band. (Heck, I’ve seen bars take 100% of the door and charge the band for beer.) I’ve seen bars blame the bands for poor attendance when I can find no evidence they’ve even told their patrons they have live music. I’ve walked into gigs and had the bartender exclaim, “we have bands here?” I’ve seen people stand at the door and argue over a $3 cover charge. I’ve had people come up to me with an $8 drink in their hand and tell me I should give them a free t-shirt.

This is not a nationwide phenomenon, this is the Twin Cities. I’ve travelled enough to see that there are still cities out there with a vibrant music scene. I’ve seen bars who are actually grateful that you showed up and brought people into their bar. I’ve seen rooms full of people shell out a cover charge unquestioningly for a band they’ve never heard of. It’s an embarrassment for a city that claims to embrace the arts as much as we do. Sure, there are exceptions in both directions, but overall, the general attitude towards musicians in this town ranges from indifferent to insulting.

The absolute worst part? I’ve seen fantastic musicians forced to quit. After 15 years on this scene, I can count on one hand the musicians I know who are actually making a living playing music. I can’t think of a single one who is doing it playing original music. I still make 99% of my money playing covers.

Bars, if you want good music, you might have to spend a couple bucks. Put a poster on the wall to let your customers know what bands are coming. Put a sign out front with the bands’ names on it. Spelled correctly. Make sure your whole staff is aware of the music calendar. Install a PA, and make sure a couple people on your staff know how it’s wired. And maybe, just maybe, pay someone to actually seek out good music and schedule bands that go together.

Music-loving public, if you want good music, demand it. Don’t be afraid to tell the bartender that you love live music, but are leaving because the current band is horrible. (And don’t be afraid to tell the bartender that you love live music, but are leaving because it’s so damn loud you can’t actually identify the music.) If you can spend $5 on a Miller Lite, you can take a chance on a $5 cover for 3 or 4 bands. If you like the band, buy their CD. At the asking price. Educate yourselves; if you go to see an original shoegaze band with acoustic guitars and a violin, don’t ask them to play Kid Rock. It’s insulting, and it makes you look stupid. In fact, if you’re watching an original band, don’t ever request a song unless it’s one they wrote. Ever.

There are plenty of bands who will play for free, but like most things in life, you get what you pay for.