My name is Jonny Grave, and I’m a guitarist. I play blues. Old stuff. 1920’s, 1930’s, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, John Hurt… that kind of thing. I play gigs. That’s actually how I make a living, if you’d believe it. I play guitar, people write me a check. It’s weird. I try not to think about it too much.
Every now and again, I get to leave town for some gigs. We in the industry call this a “tour,” which is really any stretch of gigs outside of your immediate hometown area. I’ve done a bunch of these. Some with a band, though mostly solo. It’s fun– you get to widen your perspective, try your own songs on new people, maybe have an adventure or two.
There’s the downsides, too– chronic back pain from driving hours and hours every day, the dubious nature of truckstop food and perpetual isolation from the rest of the world as you careen toward an uncertain career goal at eighty miles an hour in a rented Ford Focus.
Past that, and some strict-as-fuck cannabis laws in the Deep South, it’s pretty great. Strap in, dear hearts. Let’s go for a ride.
10/17/2017: Mount Pleasant
Last night on Earth, again. Marx Café has become a semi-monthly engagement for Terry Boes and I, sometimes inviting a bassist, other times inviting ourselves onstage with Robert Lighthouse. We have fun. Tonight is like any other, really. Small crowd, but appreciative, and absolutely reeling on the wine. Thanks, Will. This is the perfect place to start a seventeen-day jaunt around the country; good friends, music, dumb jokes, and 1:00 a.m. plantains from Don Juan’s. I love my city.
GPS said it would take five hours. With traffic, it took six and a half. Around 7:30 p.m., I crawled onto Liberty, and pulled into Leaf & Bean, the little cigar shop off 22nd. In a matter of minutes, I got the little PA out of my rented Ford, rigged up the guitar, and played for a tiny, yet loudly appreciative crowd in the shop and sidewalk-side patio. After the set, and somehow garnering $150 in my tip jar, Zeke introduced me to Jim, the shop’s owner. Jim, of Island Jim Brand Cigars, holds a patent for a cigar rolling method. He’s got a fascinating store. When I grow up, I would like to be more like Jim.
Sofar Sounds has spread its wings since its humble beginnings in London living rooms. On a Thursday afternoon, Sofar took me to a rooftop in the Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio. I never get tired of these shows. It’s a visceral, stripped-down gig. It’ll humble you, especially if it’s your first time in their town. Say, “Thank you,” and, “Of course, I would love to come back again as soon as I can.” After the show, I bought Zig-Zags from the Shell on East Liberty, under the eyes of two Ohio State Troopers. I smoked a joint under the stars, on the hood of the car, listening to 1480 WDJO, humming along to the Shirelles and Ray Charles. I called in a Bo Didley request on my way out of town. I hit I-65 and headed North.
My. Airbnb. Has. A. Mother. Fucking. Balcony. Yessir. It’s around the corner from the University of Chicago, which is convenient, because that’s where I’m playing. Jared, my buddy Keren’s kid, hooked me up with a show at the International House, which, as it turns out, is actually a dorm. Jared’s an RA. He got fifty of his building’s kids to turn up for a show. I am elated, grateful, and honestly dumbfounded. At the risk of making this moment sound saccharine, nights like these give me hope. I drank Macallan 12-year double-cask single-malt on the balcony over Cottage Grove, and fell asleep to the sound of the L.
I bought some grass off a guy at the Cottage Grove stop, just outside Daley’s, where I had a massive breakfast. I dropped $30 into a crevasse at the base of a steel girder supporting the L tracks overhead, and he dropped a bag of what looked to be Mexican shag. I wasn’t about to complain. The day was spent at the Art Institute of Chicago, walking through hall after hall of masterworks. Every gallery has its own flavor, its own approach to showing off their collection. Chicago’s sense of pride is evident throughout this museum. I can’t think of a single museum or gallery that so evenly covers everything from pre-Hellenistic Greek busts to 6th-Century China carved lacquer bowls to Byzantine tapestries to the French Impressionists.
Leaving Chicago on a Sunday for Indianapolis is more of a challenge than you’d think. First you have to pick out where you’re going for breakfast (Valois, naturally), and how much you’re willing to spend at the record shop across the street ($50, evidently). Then you’re ready to hit the road.
The evening’s gig was a Sofar show in the bottling room at Fountain Square Brewery. The city of Indianapolis is experiencing somewhat of a re-vitalization (read: gentrification and over-development), but actively finding ways to deal with it. A joint on Joshua Powell‘s front porch at 1:00 a.m. shed a little light on how Indianapolis charges forward: “We keep working on what we’ve always worked on. Sooner or later, people will smell the bullshit for what it is,” breathes Powell. I am hopeful.
A full day off, and not a moment too soon. I’m not about to pretend playing shows is hard work, or that I have a miserable time driving from town to town and playing to rooms full of strangers. I love my job, and I love touring, but Jesus I could use a nap.
Adrian Krygowski met Meredith Brown at IOTA a few years ago. They fell in love, got married, moved to Tennessee, and began a new life together as Adrian+Meredith, a singer/songwriter duo, working out of their home in East Nashville. I arrived on their doorstep at 8:00 p.m., and sat in the kitchen with Adrian, talking over gigs, plans, festivals, and our respective approaches to world domination. Adrian bought me a burger at the Red Door. Meredith bought me a beer. I rolled them both a joint at the house. We all went to bed at Midnight. Thanks to their guest room’s blackout curtains, I slept until Noon.
I awoke to an email from my contact in Clarksdale– my show had been bumped for the night, which meant I had an extra day to bum around Nashville.
Immediately upon waking, Adrian and I scooted to Barista Parlor. Allow me to explain to you, how I enjoy coffee: I drink a red eye. That’s a drip or filter coffee with a shot of espresso. If the Marzocco is pulling doubles, I take a double, which is technically a black eye, but who’s really going to stress this point? The two most expensive red eyes I have ever bought have both been in Nashville. One of them was at Barista Parlor. I paid $6 for the Columbian drip with the $7 shot of the same farm’s espresso. It was magical. Adrian and I worked for hours at our laptops, until we became famished. We threw everything on the table into my duffel bag, we bought a frilly bar of chocolate, and booked it for Prince’s Hot Chicken before the dinner rush hit. We missed it, thankfully, and devoured the spiciest chicken available. We regretted nothing from the experience.
Later that night, I saw Derek Hoke at the 5 Spot. He had two amplifiers behind him in a magical stereo setup, with what sounded like thunder breathing from the speakers with every gentle pull from the strings. He played three songs, and made me think about my own playing differently.
I took the Natchez Trace down to Tupelo… I should probably write that song sometime.
Blue. Fucking. Canoe. That’s who. This place is the proverbial shit. That guy wiping the tables, greeting and seating guests? Yep, that’s Adam Morgan. He’s also the owner. They’ve run a formidable highway-side restaurant, bar, and patio, with an heartfully serious neighborhood bent. The smash burger is a beef/pork blend, and the pork comes from a local butcher’s shop just up the street. Connie’s, the neighborhood fried chicken joint, makes blueberry donuts. The leftovers of which get bought by Blue Canoe for their bread pudding. Every beer I’ve ever got at Blue Canoe has been local. I love folks who do well by their community.
Talking of which, Sean Kaufman, Tupelo’s perpetual bonvivant, has given me a room in which to crash. He’s become a sort of Tupelo Totem for the traveling/touring musician types. Sean’s good people.
I bought an eighth off a guy at a housing development just outside downtown. I was looking to find some grass when I got to Tupelo, but apparently the entire township of Lee County has gone dry. So, never to be discouraged, I headed for Oxford to seek out greener pastures. Found some. I found it enlightening to fully understand how differently buying cannabis in an illegal state is from buying it in a legal District. In some parts of the country, any amount of cannabis can be grounds for prison. Mandatory minimum sentences. They are still very, very real. I stashed the baggie into the trunk, grabbed a bite from the Chinese buffet (I regret nothing), made it back to Tupelo in less than an hour, and smoked a joint the size of my thumb.
Kaufman’s at a costume party as a pickle. I have no interest in going to a party. I stay in and play guitar. At ten minutes to midnight, he’s home. He brought Alli, too. The event had to shut down before midnight, which Alli claims is far too early of an hour to end a giant costume party. We head for the Stables, a bar just a block off Main st. Sean understood my affinity for history, and decided we should drink there. I wind up at Waffle House with Alli at 1:30 a.m. I like this tour.
After crashing in his guest room for five consecutive tours, Todd’s now given me a key. Bless him. And his mom’s in town, too! Cool. After wheeling off the interstate for a breath, and a string change at Todd’s, I head a mile more for Champy’s Chicken, a family-run fried chicken joint, with one of the best recipes for bird I’ve ever put it my mouth. I love their food, I love their beer, I love their staff, and I can’t tell you how much I love their jukebox. Three sets, a very decent payday, a meal, and a downright respectful crowd. I wish all gigs were Champy’s gigs.
Coffee and work for three hours in Downtown. I bought a 1980’s telephoto lens at a vintage shop on 1st, called What’s on 2nd. I ate barbecue, and watched the crowd swell and gather into a wave. Alabama didn’t have a football game, and it’s the Saturday night before Halloween. Lakeview, suspiciously nowhere near a Lake, nor a view, was suddenly choked with throngs of costumed drinkers. I counted four American Indian costumes, as I wrote scary stories in the darkened back-bar of Oasis. We played for four hours that night and made money, too.
2:00 p.m. showtime, 1:00 p.m. load-in. Drums first, then bass, then keys through the PA, then my vocals, and then I can turn the guitar amplifier on, and leave it on for four hours. I push the overdrive circuit pretty hard, and want to conserve whatever life is in the tubes. Ninety-minute set, take a break, drink a club soda. Hour-long set, take a break, drink a club soda, smoke a cigarette. Walk back in, ask the folks inside to turn the lights down as dark as they’ll go, strap up, flip the stand-by switch, and lean into it for fifty minutes. When they beg you to do one more, you kindly remind them about the merch case. Collect $400 from the door (40 walk-up, $10 a head), split it four ways because you should always split it evenly. Pay out Mikey, Brian, and Eric, who threw the whole thing together, thank Dan, and go straight to Alabaster and pass out.
Nope, didn’t have a gig. I had an open mic slot at Eddie’s Attic, and I was going to win the $100 prize for best song, too. My Airbnb was a dorm room. I was impressed with the ingenuity of the kids. I was almost ten years their senior. This is likely the first of what I believe will be many moments wherein I feel palpably old.
It’s a dream-come-true: an outdoor gig on Halloween, in front of a seated and rapt audience, in the middle of a converted former auto plant. Sofar Sounds has found delightful new ground in Charlotte only months ago, and already they’re making cool stuff like this happen. I played first, which meant I got to sit back, drink beer, watch Pierce Edens and Mo Lowda & the Humble, and take pictures with Katherine. I decided a week earlier to head for home a day early, which meant sticking to the plan at the end of the night, and heading for bed at a decent hour. I said my thank you’s and farewells, got behind the wheel of the Focus, and drove straight to Oaklawn. I fell asleep to the trains whistling past the old church.
11/01/2017: Columbia Heights
Home, dog, girlfriend, bed.